Conservation easement acreage continues to grow

By Bob Lazaro and Maggi MacQuilliam
Special to the Rappahannock News

Rappahannock County now has almost 17 percent of its total acreage in conservation easements. That means 28,347 acres out of a total of 170,604.

Map courtesy of Piedmont Environmental Council

The numbers come from a year-end tally by the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), which show that Rappahannock residents added 772 acres of privately conserved land in 2009. Throughout Virginia’s northern Piedmont last year, PEC’s tally shows, landowners protected 18,065 acres of open space last year through conservation easements.

The movement to protect privately held rural land from development has been experiencing tremendous momentum in the Piedmont region, with landowners conserving an average of 22,270 acres every year for the last five years. The total for 2009 brings the number of acres conserved in the nine counties served by the PEC to 325,530 acres, an area larger than Shenandoah National Park.

“We’re immensely pleased at what communities in the Piedmont have been able to accomplish to provide a legacy of conserved open space for our children and future generations,” says PEC President Chris Miller. “When it comes to conservation, this is one of the most successful regions in the entire country.”

The Piedmont region continues to lead the state of Virginia, which is among the top five states in the nation for protecting land through private conservation easements. The nine counties of Virginia’s Piedmont — Loudoun, Clarke, Fauquier, Culpeper, Rappahannock, Madison, Orange, Greene and Albemarle — have conserved more land than almost any state in the nation.
Of the northern Virginia Piedmont counties, only Fauquier (21.6 percent), Albermarle (17.34) and Clarke (17.31) have a higher proportion of their acreage in private easements than Rappahannock, at 16.62 percent.

Said Bob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF): “Working with PEC and others, VOF was able to protect more than 10,000 acres in PEC’s region in 2009 and 55,000 acres statewide. From historic Montpelier in Orange County to the drinking water supply for the Town of Purcellville in Loudoun County, our easements ensure that Virginia’s cultural and natural resources are being protected for future generations.”

According to a 2003 study by the American Farmland Trust in Culpeper County, farms and other open lands use only 32 cents in local services for every dollar of taxes paid, while homes require $1.22 for every dollar paid. Land placed under permanent easement also lowers the value used by the state to determine local ‟ability to pay,” which results in increased funding from the Commonwealth for schools and other county services.

Easements also support two major industries of the Piedmont: agriculture and tourism. Like other landowners, farmers can gain needed capital by voluntarily conserving their land and earning a substantial state tax credit which they may either use or sell on the open market. Farmers also benefit from reduced appraisal values on their land, which lightens their tax burden. In Rappahannock, farmers also have the option of working with the publicly supported Farmland Preservation Program, which purchases easement on working farmland.

Protecting the integrity of the rural landscape also preserves essential historic resources, provides vital habitat for wildlife, and safeguards the scenic views and recreation opportunities that sustain a high quality of life in the Piedmont. “Conservation easements help us to take care of many of the things that people in this region care about the most,” said Don Loock, PEC’s Land Conservation Officer for Rappahannock County.

For information about land conservation in Rappahannock County, you can contact Don Loock at 540-522-4222 or via email at dloock@pecva.org.

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