Loudoun-Funded Conservation Easement Program Moves Ahead

Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge)’s plan to offer public money to help pay for protecting more land from development moved ahead with a July 19 vote by the Board of Supervisors.

Buffington’s plan would have the county government help pay the up-front cost of putting land under conservation easements, a cost that runs into the tens of thousands of dollars between appraisals, financial and legal services.

Conservation easements are agreements between landowners and the government or a nonprofit to permanently limit development and subdivision on a property. Property owners have pointed out that on top of the up-front cost, they are also giving up the potential for profit from their land by preventing it from being subdivided and sold to developers.

The 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’s proposal has seen support from the towns of Hillsboro, Middleburg and Lovettsville and organizations including the Loudoun County Bed and Breakfast Guild, the Rural Economic Development Council, the Heritage Commission, Visit Loudoun, the Loudoun County Farm Bureau, the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, the Unison Preservation Society, the Loudoun County Equine Alliance, Save Rural Loudoun, and the Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Sally Price, executive director of the nonprofit Land Trust of Virginia, threw her support behind the program with comments during the Board of Supervisors meeting, and Hillsboro mayor Roger Vance spoke in favor of the idea on the same day that supervisors formally honored him for his years of service to the town.

“It’s an important tool to protect the rural economy, the growing agritourism, and ensure that we maintain open space,” Vance said. “Every day, we’re losing that open space, we’re losing that ground.”

Steven Mackey said his family would like to put land into easement, and that the program would help “families like ours, who are willing to commit to the preservation of Loudoun’s open space at our own financial loss.”

Buffington’s proposal would set up a $150,000 fund from the county’s year-end budget balance, which would be used cover up to 50 percent or $15,000—whichever is less—of the costs for a landowner putting property into a conservation easement.

But the specifics of that proposal will be tested through a review by county staff members. Other supervisors expressed some skepticism about some aspects of the proposal—such as an income qualification capped at 200 percent of Loudoun’s median income. That would mean people making just over a quarter million dollars a year would still qualify for relief—something Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) said was “of concern” to her.

Other supervisors were supportive of the idea.

Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) called it “very fiscally conservative in the long run.”

“Conservation easement are not just a great way to preserve open space, they’re also a great opportunity to save the county money, because we don’t have to provide services for development that’s not there,” said Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin).

Supervisors, particularly those from eastern Loudoun districts, also requested a comprehensive briefing on other land programs, such as agricultural and forestal districts.

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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