Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) has proposed that the Loudoun Country government help with the cost of setting up conservation easements, lowering the cost to private landowners to protect their land from development.
Buffington said, “we have to do better on conservation easements.”
Conservation easements are agreements between landowners and the government or a nonprofit to permanently limit development and subdivision on a property. That agreement is recorded with county land records, meaning the agreement follows the property’s deed. According to the county’s website, there are more than 65,000 acres of land protected by conservation easements in Loudoun.
Buffington said his program would help defray the cost of creating those easements.
“Initially the Board [of Supervisors] would have some level of funding each year to assist folks in the rural parts of our county with the up-front cost of putting their land into conservation easement,” Buffington said. “Because those costs can range anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, so that’s a barrier to a lot of folks.”
Those costs include appraisals and financial and legal services, among other costs including a fee or required donation to a conservation organization as part of the transfer. Buffington said helping with those costs could help landowners willing to donate their land, but without the cash on hand to do it.
Buffington’s proposal would set up a $150,000 fund from the county’s year-end budget balance. That money would be used to cover up to 50 percent or $15,000—whichever is less—for a landowner putting land into a conservation easement overseen by a qualified nonprofit as determined by the IRS. The state has additional rules for what nonprofits can manage a conservation easement.
The program is also proposed with eligibility requirements, including that the property in question can be subdivided under its current zoning. The county could provide a commitment to cover costs, but would not actually pay out any money until the conservation easement is recorded with the Loudoun Clerk of the Court.
Buffington’s proposal is also a manifesto for the value of the rural economy, and cites figures and trends including a 69 percent increase in the number of homes in Loudoun’s rural policy area since 2001, and the loss of almost 30,000 acres of Loudoun farmland from 2002 to 2012 according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. That same census shows most of the loss occurred between 2002 and 2007, shedding more than 22,000 acres in that five-year stretch.
Buffington also argued for the rural area’s value to both Loudoun’s identity as a 240-year-old farming community—pointing out the phrase “preserving the best of Loudoun County’s unique historical significance and heritage while positioning the County to be in the forefront of progressive enterprise” in the Board of Supervisors’ adopted strategic goals—and its economy. He cited figures from the county’s Rural Economic Development Council estimating that every dollar of sales from rural businesses triggers another 25 cents in sales and 20 cents in earnings at businesses throughout the county.
Supervisors are expected to take the program up at their meeting July 19. Learn more about the county’s conservation easement program at loudoun.gov/conservationeasements.