Editor: I believe it would be helpful to your readers to correct an error that John Ellis made in his Aug. 30 column about conservation easements. I have been and remain a strong proponent of conservation easements, and during my 40-year career as a land use planner and planning consultant, I have helped several localities pursue conservation easement programs. However, from a public policy standpoint, it’s important to implement them for the right reasons. The main reasons to pursue conservation easements are not for the supposed fiscal benefits that Mr. Ellis claims, but rather primarily for the land use and environmental benefits. Any fiscal benefits are largely illusory.
Mr. Ellis wrote that conservation easements “reduce the amount of rural land available for new residential developments” and thus save the county money on operating costs that would have been spent for government services to those residences that are not built.
This is a flawed analysis for the simple reason that the supply of rural land available for residential development far exceeds the current demand, and thus, if a farm is put under easement, the houses that would have been built on it will not disappear, but instead will be built on another piece of land, most likely nearby, and very likely within Loudoun County. A few marginal units may be located in neighboring counties but because those are quite different markets, most of the houses precluded by conservation easements will simply appear elsewhere in Loudoun County. Thus, the easement creates no significant savings to the county’s fiscal budget.
If the vast majority of available land in the county was put under easement, it is conceivable that the supply would be so constrained that it might actually affect the number or rate of houses built here. But only a small percentage of land is or will likely be placed under easement and thus the effect on housing supply will be only marginal at best, with virtually no impact on the County’s overall operating or capital budgets.
There are other excellent reasons to promote conservation easements, and I hope the county will not only promote them, but also reinstitute its easement purchase program. However, it is not for the fiscal benefit, but for the environmental, land use, and other benefits that easements produce.
Milton J. Herd, Leesburg
[Editor’s note: Milton Herd is an urban planning consultant based in Leesburg and a former director of Planning for Loudoun County.]