Conservation easement bill passes first Senate test

By Sarah Drury
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources has approved a bill that would establish an authority to mediate between land conservation owners and easement holders.

House Bill 1488, introduced by Del. Brenda Pogge, R-Williamsburg, cleared the committee Thursday on a vote of 12-2 with one abstention. The bill, which is co-sponsored by seven Republicans and three Democrats, had passed the House, 87-9, on Feb. 2.

Originally, the legislation gave the local government where the property was located and “any other government agency or person with standing under other statutes or common law” the ability to initiate an action affecting a conservation easement. This was a topic of intense debate.

However, the bill was revised in the House. Now it would enable only private owners of the fee interest in land, any holder of an easement, or holders of a third-party right of enforcement of an easement to submit a request regarding a conservation easement.

“This bill establishes an authority that already exists, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation,” Pogge said. “They are the ones who handle the distribution of the grant money to pay for these easements.”

With this bill, property owners and easement holders would be able to turn to the foundation for mediation in resolving a dispute. Currently, these matters usually must be resolved by going to court.

“I think a lot of land trusts opposed the original legislation,” said Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, an organization which promotes and protects Virginia Piedmont’s rural economy, natural resources and history.

“I think the legislators recognized it and reined it back in. We are still tracking it to see if it has any value.”

If asked to resolve a dispute, the foundation would utilize the process outlined in the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act, which sets forth mediation procedures. Pogge said that while there initially was opposition to the bill, the various parties were able to bring everyone to the table.

“This is a huge breakthrough. It would keep people out of court and would give property owners and easement holders the ability to request a hearing or let them know there is a problem,” Pogge said.

With the endorsement of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, the bill now goes to the full Senate. Pogge said she is hopeful it will pass.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources voted on Feb. 12 on HB 1488 (“Conservation easements; tax benefits, disputes over easement terms”).

02/12/15 Senate: Reported from Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources (12-Y 2-N 1-A)

YEAS — Hanger, Watkins, Ruff, Obenshain, McEachin, Petersen, Stuart, Marsden, Stanley, Black, Chafin, Dance — 12.

NAYS — Miller, Ebbin — 2.

ABSTENTIONS — Lewis — 1.

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Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.