One of the County’s Comprehensive Goals is to preserve Albemarle’s rural character. One way to implement that goal is to retire development rights in the rural area, which comprises 95% of County land. One of the County’s tools is the Acquisition of Conversation Easements (ACE) program, where funds from the County’s general fund are used to purchase easements. The County has set a specific benchmark of putting an additional 30,000 acres under easement by 2010.
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However, there are generally more applicants for the ACE program than money. County staff recently wrote in a report that the program will suffer if additional funds cannot be found to accommodate demand.
The County spent $1 million a year on ACE from 2000 to 2006, and then increased that amount in the past two years. Additional money has come from grants and private donations, though the economic downturn has reduced the overall level of funding. Property values have also increased dramatically over the same period.
“The number of acres placed under conservation easements has steadily dropped from 1,110 acres to less than 550 acres in each of the last three years,” wrote staff in a report for a work session held by the Board of Supervisors at their meeting on September 3, 2008. Rex Linville of the Piedmont Environmental Council and Pat O’Connell of the firm Evergreen Capital Advisors appeared before the Board to discuss ways of leveraging the County’s financial resources to increase the amount of funds available to ACE, which would lead to the placing of more acreage under easement.
“Today’s dollars are not protecting what they used to when you started this program back in 2000,” said Linville, who works as a land conservation officer for PEC. Linville introduced Pat O’Connell as a nationally recognized expert on conversation finance, which he practices at his firm. O’Connell is also a graduate of the Darden School of Business. He said many other localities around the country are expressing the same financial pressures.
“Sellers may often not want cash,” O’Connell said. “They may be in tax situations that prevent them or motivate them not to take cash as the payment for the sale of their easement. If you want them to preserve, you need to be able to respond to those tax situations in order to get their easements.”
O’Connell spoke for several minutes about potential options, which include leveraging general revenue through the sale of bonds or loans, assuming a seller’s debt in exchange for easements, public-private partnerships and more.