Tax Credit Is Wise Investment in Virginia
By Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. and Vance Wright
Land conservation is a part of Virginia’s shared history, and its importance has grown from our shared cultural and political roots. The Constitution of Virginia expresses the state’s policy “to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”
Virginia’s Land Preservation Tax Credit (LPTC) was established in 1999 and has been directly responsible for conserving more than 741,000 acres of land in the commonwealth. The program is remarkable not only for how it works — a pragmatic mix of market-based incentives and voluntary action — but also where it works, including Virginia’s working farms and rural economies.
Conservation easements and the Land Preservation Tax Credit are incredibly important tools for conservation. The LPTC also preserves Virginia’s people and their quality of life in that it directly supports three of Virginia’s important industries: agriculture, forestry and tourism.
In addition to protecting the land that is the basic infrastructure for agriculture, forestry and tourism, conservation easements incentivized by the Land Preservation Tax Credit have dramatically increased the number of miles of permanent riparian buffers along the commonwealth’s streams and rivers. This is an important investment in protecting the quality of the water that we drink, in which we fish and swim and that businesses rely upon.
One success story of the LPTC program involves the owner of a rural dairy farm in Wythe County who donated a conservation easement on 274 acres of land that had been in the same family for eight generations. The easement allows the farmer to continue raising dairy cattle and to conduct other agricultural and forestry activities on the land but prohibits dividing the property into more than three parcels or using the land for industrial or commercial development. The farmer received a tax credit worth 40 percent of the fair market value of the easement, and Wythe County received protection for a critical portion of the New River watershed and for important buffers for a national forest and a wildlife management area.
This tax credit is not an entitlement or a gift. It is a public/private partnership and shared investment. For every $100 of land preservation tax credits issued, private landowners contribute at least $150 in value to the long-term conservation of the commonwealth’s natural, historic, scenic and agriculture resources.
The Land Preservation Tax Credit is also distinctively effective. In its report to Virginia’s governor and the General Assembly, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) identified the LPTC as one of only two tax preferences in Virginia that “effectively achieves goals,” and described it as “a stable and cost-efficient method of conserving land.” It is fiscally responsible, and its current investment of $75 million per year — approximately 0.15 percent of the state budget — has increased the funds available to farmers for operations, equipment and investment. Many landowners have taken the proceeds of both grants and tax credits to buy more farmland and to increase production.
Nowhere is this opportunity more important than in the rural parts of the state where economic conditions have changed drastically. Landowners — often longtime family farmers and timber owners — are facing tough decisions about the future of their land. Providing a land preservation tax credit injects much-needed capital into these very critical financial decisions.
The Land Preservation Tax Credit, in its current form, is one of the most effective land conservation incentives in the United States. Reducing its already modest funding, as proposed in HB1470, would almost certainly threaten its efficacy and would surely reduce the quantity and quality of land protection in Virginia.
Land conservation preserves our history, enhances our recreation and protects the commonwealth’s air, land and water. The Land Preservation Tax Credit is a safe and wise investment in the environment that sustains us. It is an investment in Virginia’s land, its people and its future.
Wiley Mitchell (Virginia Beach) is a board member of The Nature Conservancy of Virginia. Previously he was the senior general counsel for Norfolk Southern Corporation as well as a member of the Virginia Senate. Contact him at email@example.com.
Vance Wright (Mecklenburg) is the owner of Wright Forestry, president of Charles A. Wright Logging, president of the Virginia Logging Association, and serves on the board of the Virginia Forestry Association. He is proud to have put his land under a conservation easement. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.