Committee Recommends Lower Threshold for Conservation Easement Assistance

After a less-than-busy first year of the county’s new Conservation Easement Assistance Program, the county finance committee and staff members have recommended supervisors loosen the program’s income requirement to open it up to more landowners.

Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) first proposed the program, which sets up a $150,000 fund to help landowners pay part of the cost of putting land into conservation easements. Those easements permanently protect land from certain uses and involves periodic site visits from a government or land trust inspector to makes sure terms of that agreement are followed. The fund may cover up to half the cost of putting land into conservation easement, or up to $15,000, whichever is less.

 But the first application period in March only saw one application, which did not meet the income eligibility requirement. The property was owned by a family trust with assets beyond the program’s parameters.

The second application period, in September, got only one application. That applicant listed a federal gross household income just above the area median income, but a Virginia adjusted gross income below it, a situation supervisors and staff members had not anticipated. Because it meets all other requirements of the program, county staff members have recommended approving a $14,005 grant and replenishing the fund from the year-end county budget fund balance.

Based on that limited response—which sees most of the money set aside for the program left untouched—and feedback from land trusts, supervisors may choose to raise the cap on income. County staff members have recommended 115 percent of area median income, or $139,495, and measuring that with state adjusted gross household income.

For properties held in a trust or LLC, county officials recommended the income cap be based on the gross income of the beneficiaries or members.

They have also recommended a rolling, year-long applications rather than two application periods. The county finance committee recommended the full Board of Supervisors approve those changes unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 12.

“Think these are relatively minor changes, but now that we’ve had some real world experience, I can understand the logic in them,” said committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “I’m not sure they’re going to make a huge difference in terms of the budgetary impact or the overall participation in the program, but might help a little bit.”

When the program was originally presented in July, Buffington proposed capping income at double the area median income, meaning households bringing in more than a quarter million dollars could still qualify for county funding. That was later cut in half to the current cap.

“We knew when we made this originally  that we were being very conservative, and that’s what the first year has proven,” Buffington said. “And we’re just making slight adjustments to mae sure that some people can qualify.”

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