Editorial: Big Washington action needed to protect open spaces

There’s been a lot of criticism lately that Rappahannock’s towns, especially its county seat, are becoming “too cutesy” and that the land itself has increasingly become no country for less-than-wealthy folk. But imagine the alternative:

Boarded up, dilapidated buildings in what, just a couple of decades ago, were vibrant villages? And in the surrounding countryside, instead of rolling hills as far as the eye can see, endless suburban sprawl? Wait, I contradict myself: Sprawl would mean more people and more people would need commercial centers, so the towns wouldn’t be boarded up after all!

But Rappahannock County wouldn’t be Rappahannock without its open spaces — inseparably linked with the natural beauty they preserve. If there is one thing that defines Rappahannock, that truly sets it apart from other Virginia counties, it’s the “unsprawled” open spaces.

And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just financially well-off people who preserve and protect the open spaces. Working farmers who need the cash can sell their development rights in lieu of subdividing (developing) their farm. The county government and environmental organizations, like the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), have funds set up just for this purpose. In addition, both the state and federal government offer substantial tax incentives to encourage open space preservation.

Unfortunately, the enhanced federal tax incentive expired at the beginning of this year. That means federal tax deductions, based on the value of the development rights, must be taken over the span of five — rather than 15 — years. The longer timeframe gave a taxpayer with not a lot of annual income a better chance to actually utilize the tax deduction.

The Obama Administration has recommended making permanent the enhanced tax incentive, and the Senate has taken steps toward at least a two-year renewal. It is now up to the House of Representatives, not known recently for meaningful action beyond partisan posturing.

But without action, in the words of the PEC’s Heather Richards: “We see reductions in the acreage protected in Virginia when the federal incentive is reduced or lost.”

Walter Nicklin

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