Easements down, but totals add up

Detail of map courtesy of Piedmont Environmental Council

The numbers are now in: 296 acres were recorded as conservation easements in Rappahannock County in 2010. These were fewer acres than in previous years, but nonetheless bring the total amount of land protected by conservation easements here to more than 28,600 acres, or 17 percent of the total land.

As measured by a percentage of land protected, Rappahannock is one of the leaders among the nine counties of Virginia’s northern Piedmont region. The total amount of private conservation land in the region is now more than 336,000 acres, which represents 15 percent of the total land. Public lands in Shenandoah National Park and Wildlife Management Areas add another 186,000 acres — or 8 percent — to the region’s tally of conservation lands.

A “key property” protected in Rappahannock in 2010, in the words of a Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) spokesperson, was Brett Hitt’s land in Amissville. His family has owned this land for well over 150 years.

Like many family lands, much of the Hitt property had been divided and sold over time. In an unusual reversal of this trend, after years of researching and working on the real estate, Hitt was able to reassemble 246 acres. These are what he protected last year with a conservation easement.

Held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), the Hitt easement merges more than 20 properties back into one parcel that can be divided only twice in the future. It also protects several tributaries of the Rappahannock River that flow through the land. Hitt says, “The family is excited, and we are enjoying spending our time on the land knowing that it is all back to the way it was.”

Meanwhile, Frank Raiter and Barbara Kavanagh granted an easement for 50 acres at Turkey Run Farm west of Rock Mills to the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF). Under the terms of the working forest easement, the property may not be divided in the future, perpetually contributing to a larger block of unfragmented forestland in the area. This easement is the third VDOF has been granted in the county, according to VDOF forest conservation specialist Mike Santucci.

“Private forest landowners, such as Mr. Raiter and Ms. Kavanagh, determine the sustainability of our forests and the benefits they provide. Their commitment to sustainable forest management, wildlife habitat and improving water and air quality is demonstrated by these donations,” Santucci said. In Virginia, more than 10 million acres of forestland are in the hands of 373,600 private landowners.

The Raiter-Kavanagh property is almost entirely forested. Most of the acreage is an actively managed oak savanna wildlife habitat. The tract contains approximately a half-mile of frontage along Turkey Run, a tributary of the Thornton River. Located above its confluence with the river, the property helps protect the water quality and aquatic habitat within the Thornton River watershed.

“As an avid hunter and sportsman,” said landowner Raiter, “I wanted to take an active role in managing for quail habitat in Rappahannock County. Putting the land into easement assured that our efforts would be passed on to future owners, and the VDOF program was the best solution for small land holdings. We had a great experience with everyone involved.”

The VDOF conservation easement program is the only one in the state that focuses primarily on protecting working forests. To be considered, a property must be at least 50 acres in size; 75 percent forested, and the landowner must be willing to have a forest stewardship management plan prepared. Landowners who want to ensure that their land will be forever maintained as forest may consider a VDOF easement.

Any conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency, like the VDOF, or a non-profit conservation organization, such as the VOF, that protects the conservation values of a property. The landowner continues to own, use and control the land.

As to why the number of easements, and their acreage, went down last year in Rappahannock, the answer seems to lie in financial uncertainty. State and federal tax incentives partially offset the financial sacrifices that landowners make when they give up part of the development potential of their land, but in 2010, Congress did not vote until December to maintain the expanded federal tax incentive.

In addition, the depressed economy meant the value of land appraisals — and thus tax deductions — would likely have been lower than in years past.

“Throughout 2010, local and national land trusts were frustrated by failed attempt after failed attempt at extension of the tax incentive by Congress.” according to Nathan Jenkins, executive director of the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance (RCCA). “Understandably, landowners were hesitant to start the process without an idea of what the financial implications would be.”

The easement incentive, said Jenkins, “increased a federal income tax deduction from 30 percent to 50 percent per year, until reaching the value of the donated easement. For farmers, the income tax deduction was 100 percent. Additionally, landowners could take this deduction for 16 years rather than six. Obviously, many folks in Rappahannock would need the enhanced incentive — allowing a higher deduction over a longer period of time — so that a conservation easement would make financial sense, no matter how much they wanted to see their land preserved.”

Now with the expanded federal tax incentive in place through 2011, Jenkins continued, “this is a particularly good year for landowners who want to donate a conservation easement.”

Local organizations like the RCCA and PEC are available to help Rappahannock landowners start and then navigate the sometimes long and complicated easement process.

The PEC’s land conservation officer Don Loock says, “Private landowners in Rappahannock County have shown incredible leadership in protecting the special resources of the county. I look forward to working with more landowners in 2011 interested in providing for the long-term stewardship of their properties and the continued legacy of Rappahannock as a leader in protecting its water, land, history, culture, and scenic beauty.”