A proposal to spend public money to help offset the cost of protecting land from development has moved forward to the Board of Supervisors following a committee vote Tuesday, Nov. 13.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge)’s proposal would set up a $150,000 fund to help property owners pay up to half the up-front cost of putting land into a conservation easement, a permanent protection against development. According to a county report, those costs generally range from $20,000 to $40,000. Buffington has said that discourages some landowners from protecting their land.
He argued spending county money now not only protects the land, but also saves money in the long term.
“I see it as a small investment now to prevent large investments later, should these properties otherwise be sold to developers who would build residential,” Buffington said.
Other supervisors generally supported the idea, although some wondered whether the county program should factor in a similar state program, the Open-Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund. That program provides help to households making up to $68,000, but is based on average incomes across the state. In western Loudoun, said Director of Management and Budget Eric McLellan, only a small percentage of households would meet that lower income requirement.
Buffington’s proposal would offer assistance to household’s making up to the area median income, which for Loudoun is currently $117,000. The grants would pay for up to $15,000 or up to half of the cost of putting the land into easement, whichever is less. He added a suggestion that if the program gets more applications than it has funding to accommodate, the county staff will prioritize applications that relinquish the greatest number of development rights or include document historic or culture resources.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the program reflects the will of the people expressed in the Envision Loudoun public hearing process, where a strong majority of comments on the county’s new comprehensive plan told planners Loudouners do not want to see the county’s rural areas developed.
“If we’re going to remain this unique county that we are and have that unique culture and character, we have to protect the rural west, so I fully and wholeheartedly and even enthusiastically support this motion,” Randall said.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) suggested a plan for landowners to pay back the cost of the easement assistance program, likening it to helping pay the down-payment on a house.
“I’m all for protecting the rural area, I am, I have no problem with doing that,” Buona said. “But it seems everything’s now starting to come at the expense of the people in the east. Where does this $150,000 every year come from? It comes from all taxpayers, including all of those in the east. And it’s a handout.”
Nonetheless, he supported the program as-is. Buffington pointed out the program is open to landowners anywhere in the county.
According to a county report, each year, an average of approximately 1,400 acres of conservation easements are added in Loudoun. The county sees five to 10 new conservation easements recorded each year, and 47,279 acres or about 14 percent of Loudoun’s land is protected in a conservation easement.
“If we’re going to continue the success of our rural tourism and agricultural economy, combined with our vast open spaces, small towns and villages, and the area’s rural, historic and scenic character and high quality of life for western Loudoun County residents, then we have to preserve a sufficient mass of open space and agricultural land,” Buffington said.