Protecting the Farm Forever With a Conservation Easement—Chapter One: Amending the Comprehensive Plan
Jeanne and I have put a lot of sweat and money into making our farm a powerhouse for ecosystem services. It produces not only wholesome food but clean water, air, and wildlife habitat. We rotate our beef cattle through a system of perennial pastures where they drink abundant clean water through a series of strategically placed watering corrals with frost-free waterers. Our streams have riparian buffers that filter nutrients and provide wildlife habitat. We manage nutrients throughout the farm with soil testing and the timely and judicious application of manure and fertilizers.
We Want to Protect the Conservation Values of the Farm Forever with a Conservation Easement
Jeanne and I want to keep our farm, Whiskey Creek Angus, in agricultural use—forever. We don’t want it subdivided into lots. A legal tool called a conservation easement can help us with that. But the easement cannot be in conflict with the county’s comprehensive plan. Our 150-acre farm has a 57-acre conflict. Augusta County has those latter acres planned for “low-density housing.” So the first step in our journey to protect the farm from being subdivided into lots is to amend the county’s comprehensive plan.
A Conservation Easement Extinguishes Most or All Development Rights
A conservation easement is a voluntary, legal agreement that permanently limits the uses of the land to protect its conservation values. It extinguishes all or most of the development rights forever.
The landowner and the land trust craft the easement document so that it also protects significant natural and cultural attributes of the land such as prime farmland soil, riparian buffers, and vistas.
The landowner still owns their property but the conservation easement gets recorded with the property’s deed and travels with the property even when the property changes ownership.
A Conservation Easement Will Protect the Farm Forever
Forever is a long time. And to uphold open-space easements forever, there needs to be an easement holder—an entity that will defend the covenants in the easement document. In Virginia, easement holders include the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Virginia Department of Forestry, Potomac Conservancy, Valley Conservation Council, the Nature Conservancy, Piedmont Environmental Council, Land Trust of Virginia, Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, Chesapeake Conservancy, and other land trusts. Virginia’s United Land Trust supports these organizations. The American Farmland Trust and the Land Trust Alliance are national nonprofit organizations that promote and uphold conservation easements.
In Virginia, all localities are required to have a comprehensive plan. In our county of Augusta, that plan designates 57 acres of our 150 for “low-density housing,” mainly because, decades ago, the county installed a waterline along Route 42 across the road from our farm. We cannot put that 57 acres in an easement if it is designated for housing. It must be redesignated as “rural conservation” or “urban open space.”
Subdivisions Use More Tax Dollars Than They Bring In
Low-density housing is the most costly form of development. It eats up a lot of open space and requires a lot of community services. Nationwide, the median cost of community services (COCS) for every dollar raised is $1.16 for residential development and $.37 for farmland, according to the American Farmland Trust.
Society has yet to put a value on the environmental services a well-managed farm provides to a community: groundwater recharge, clean water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and great views to name just a few. It begs the question, why is well-managed farmland taxed at all?
We Plan to Amend the Comprehensive Plan
The supervisor representing us on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors said we could request an amendment to the county’s comprehensive plan. The process begins with an application at the county’s Community Development office.
Jeanne and I walked into the Community Development office to apply for the change. We had our masks on and we talked to a lady behind a large clear shield. She gave us the application and said they could only change the designation from “low-density housing” to “urban open-space.”
“Well, we really want the designation to be ‘rural conservation,’ like the rest of the farm,” I stated.
She said they couldn’t do that.
“The application fee is five-fifty,” she said.
“Five dollars and fifty cents?” I asked.
“No, five-hundred and fifty dollars,” she replied. I felt a tug in my gut and had to regain my composure.
“Do we get the money back if the county decides not to make the change?” I asked.
Oh well. We paid the money and signed the application.
She then explained that the county will hold two public hearings and that every adjoining landowner would get a letter explaining the application and proposed amendment.
Wish Us Luck
If we can get the comprehensive plan amended, the next step will be to secure a suitable easement holder. I’ll let you know what happens after the public hearings.
To find out more about conservation easements and how you can protect your farm forever from development, contact me or one of the easement holding entities noted above.
There Are Many Financial Incentives for Conservation Easements
These incentives are based on the monetary value of the easement. This is basically the difference, based on an appraisal, between the value of the land before and after the easement. Some states, localities, and organizations pay the landowner the value of the easement in exchange for placing the easement on their property. That’s called purchasing development rights. Virginia has a state tax credit program that awards 40 percent of the easement value to a landowner as a tax credit. Landowners can use the credit all at once or over time, or they can sell it. When landowners donate an easement to an easement holder, the IRS considers that a charitable donation. More information about these and other benefits of a conservation easement appear on the website of Conservation Partners LLC.