Rural Summit Teaches Land Conservation Lessons from Maryland

Loudoun Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large)’s rural summit featured a variety of professionals and experts in agriculture, conservation, tourism—and one official from Montgomery County, MD, who oversees some of that county’s land conservation programs.

Jeremy Criss manages Montgomery County’s Office of Agriculture, and while there are stark differences between Loudoun and its neighbor to the north—not least of which is what their respective state governments allow the two counties to do—Criss pointed out to the crowd gathered at the Salamander Resort & Spa for the Nov. 16 event that Montgomery County also deals with some similar challenges.

Montgomery County, too, has a part of the county it would like to see stay green and undeveloped, its southern portion along the Potomac River. But in Montgomery County, too, there is development allowed by right that the county cannot stop without the landowners taking voluntary action.

In Montgomery County, there are several programs available to them, including a transfer of development rights program similar to what some of Loudoun’s elected leaders have recently considered and its Planning Commission rejected. Many who attended the summit spoke in favor of bringing that type of program to Loudoun that would allow landowners in rural areas to sell credit for the development they could do on their land to developers in other areas. The county sets up sending and receiving areas for that development density. And Criss said that program requires “a serious commitment on behalf of the county,” and hasn’t been without some bumps.

“Unfortunately, the county has been a day late and a dollar short in creating a sufficient amount of receiving capacity for all 19,000 TDRs that originate in the supply area,” Criss said. “That means that the prices that the farmers get have been low.” He said that while price is driven by the market, the market is created by the government.

And Alison Teetor, natural resource planner for neighboring Clarke County, pointed out one of the major differences between Virginia and Maryland: In Virginia, localities are much more limited in what they can do without express permission from the state government.

“We would like to have more power to make our own local decisions,” Teetor said. “We believe that one new concept is that resource management, conservation management, should be on an equal playing field with development and growth. So, if development and growth is funded and that’s a priority, we feel that the county should be able to have a priority of conservation.”

“The county may not get the incredible sparkling results in the first year,” said Piedmont Environmental Council Director of Conservation Mike Kane, speaking of land conservation programs generally. “It takes time for those decisions on the part of landowners, and for those programs to sink into the community. But what it will do it is—over time, with persistence—it grows.” He said it would be important for the county to promote its programs to landowners.

Afterward, Randall said the summit, which drew more than 300 people, was “excellent.” And she said amid the discussion there was a reminder.

“Farming is kind of the base of Loudoun’s rural life and where it started, and as we appreciate the breweries and the wineries, let’s not forget the farms,” Randall said. “That was something that I thought was said a couple times, and it stuck out to me. We don’t talk about the farms as much as we talk about other things.”

And she said it was also a reminder to get engaged as the county writes its new comprehensive plan.

The six-hour summit also included discussions on government resources available for rural businesses, local success stories like Vanish Brewery and Oakland Green Farm, and advice on how to encourage and train the next generation of rural business leaders and employees, along with a tribute to recently deceased conservation leader and former Board of Supervisors candidate Malcolm Baldwin.

The summit followed a week of political tension, with some Republicans accusing Randall of turning the meeting into a campaign event because she initially asked Board of Supervisors candidate Tia Walbridge to emcee the summit. Walbridge, a sheep farmer and founding board member of Save Rural Loudoun, is challenging Buffington for his seat representing the Blue Ridge District on the board.

Randall said the summit brought people together across Loudoun’s rural sector.

“Somebody said to me that this was the first time that they could remember that the old rural Loudoun County and the new rural Loudoun County came together,” Randall said.

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Jeremy Criss, who manages Montgomery County’s Office of Agriculture, offers some lessons-learned to Loudoun’s elected officials at the rural summit Friday. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

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