Buffington Conservation Easement Program Approved

Loudoun supervisors have adopted a program to spend county money to help defray the private cost of permanently protecting land from development.

Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) 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, including if it is sold, and involves periodic site visits from a government or land trust inspector to makes sure terms of that agreement are followed.

Buffington said if the county wants to protect the tourism and agricultural success of its rural areas, “then we have to find a way to permanently preserve a sufficient mass of open space and agricultural land, or this area that’s currently revenue-positive will eventually become revenue-negative, and we’ll have that problem to deal with.”

While those easements come with tax benefits, they also mean giving up the potential of selling land for development, and involve up-front costs that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Buffington has said that’s too high a barrier for some landowners. The fund will cover up to half the cost of putting land into conservation easement, or up to $15,000, whichever is less. If there are more applications than money to go around, county staff members will prioritize applications that give up the most development rights, or that have documented natural and historic resources.

The program is also be restricted to housholds making the area median income, currently, $117,200, or less. When the program was proposed in July, income cap was capped at double that, meaning households bringing in more than a quarter million dollars could still qualify for county funding.

“This is greatly improved over, I think, the original plan,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “I think the income level was too high for most middle class residents to really accept, but you’ve brought that way down.”

According a county report, about half of western Loudoun households, about 10,000 households, are below that threshold.

Some supervisors pushed to require applicants go first to state or federal sources for funding from similar programs, before coming to the county to apply for the balance of funding from the local program up the county’s limit. The state program, in particular, has a much lower income qualification but is also designed to give out smaller funding amounts.

“If we have the opportunity to get the money from some other source, we should look to that source first,” said Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn).

But supervisors narrowly voted down that requirement, 5-4.

“I think we have created a simple and accessible program that might be used by people,” Buffington said. “I think if we’re going to start limiting it and complicating it and tying it to state and federal programs, it’s not going to be used by people. I think we need to keep simple, simple and move forward with it.”

County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said that idea could come up again in future years more research into state and federal programs.

Supervisors adopted the new program 8-1, Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) opposed.

According to a county report, Loudoun is one of the top three counties in Virginia in both the number of conservation easements, about 750, and the total acreage they cover, about 72,000 acres. It ranks seventh among Virginia counties for percentage of land protected by a conservation easement, at 14 percent of Loudoun’s land. Neighboring Fauquier County has the largest portion of its area under easement, at 26 percent.

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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