Data released this week shows that three properties in Rappahannock County totaling more than 650 acres were protected by conservation easements in 2011 – contributing to a total of more than 29,300 acres, or 24 percent of the county’s land outside of Shenandoah National Park.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 17, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced the distribution of $1.2 million in farmland preservation grants from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) to 13 Virginia localities – but not Rappahannock County. This is a significant increase from the $100,000 available last fiscal year for state matching funds. Localities must use the grant monies to preserve farmland within their boundaries through local purchase of development rights (PDR) programs. PDR programs compensate landowners who permanently preserve their land by voluntarily placing a perpetual conservation easement on it.
“Even in these difficult economic times, the General Assembly and I are committed to setting aside funds for preserving working farmland that produces goods, provides jobs, generates tax revenue for localities all while requiring little to no services from those same localities,” said McDonnell. “One of my top environmental priorities is to permanently preserve 400,000 acres of land during my administration, much of which will be working farmlands and forests.”
Don Loock, Rappahannock-based land conservation officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), says 2011 “saw some great conservation projects that protected key resources in our community – from headwater tributaries and forests that help protect our community’s water quality, to productive farmland, to the views that inspire so many of us. We are lucky that there are so many landowners who choose to help protect the resources that make Rappahannock such a wonderful place to live.”
One of the properties protected last year was the Levi Atkins family’s 236-acre farm near Amissville, which was conserved through the Rappahannock County Farmland Preservation Program. This program utilizes county roll-back taxes, donations from individuals and conservation organizations such as the Rappahannock County Conservation Alliance (RCCA) and matching grants from groups like the Krebser Fund for Rappahannock County Conservation to help protect important farmland in the county. The Atkins easement is co-held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and the county.
As County Administrator John McCarthy put it: “The Levi Atkins easement, like the nearby easement of the Call family that preceded it as part of the county’s Farmland Preservation Program, proves that the goal of preserving working lands in Virginia is compatible with the goal of preserving open space – that human industry and conservation can work in concert for the common good in our commonwealth.”
Asked why Rappahannock would not receive any VDACS funds this coming year to help preserve farmland, McCarthy explained: “There was, as there has been in the past, a requirement for a local match. We exhausted all of the RCCA’s accumulated donations as well as our own in the acquisition of our third Farmland Protection program easement, the Levi Atkins property. We therefore had no dollars with which to match the state, and being as stressed as we were financially in the same year as we were looking to commit to the school energy projects, we could not commit the roll-back taxes (which would have been nowhere near such a number in any case) which we had used a number of years ago.”
However, McCarthy added, the county is “working in concert with PEC and RCCA to see about applying for the federal matching program, which we could leverage those organization’s resources to good effect in the coming year.”
Two additional easements granted in 2011 – one located in Harris Hollow and the other in the F.T. Valley – offer significant protection for Rappahannock’s scenic resources. Both properties are visible from Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. In addition, they help preserve views from F.T. Valley Road (Route 231) and from the town of Washington. These properties were donated by Barry and Patricia Johnston and by CWL Associates, and the easements are held by the VOF.
In total, conservation easements in Rappahannock County now protect approximately 135 miles of streams and rivers, 8,300 acres of prime farmland, 18,000 acres of forests, 10,200 acres along designated scenic byways, and 7,300 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail.
PEC has been promoting private, voluntary land conservation in Virginia’s northern Piedmont since 1972, contributing to this region’s outstanding success. In the nine-county region where PEC works, approximately 12,100 acres were protected by conservation easements in 2011, adding to a total of more than 348,000 acres or 15 percent of the total land in the region.
A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust (such as a public agency or a non-profit conservation group) to permanently protect natural, scenic and cultural resources on their land.