Conservation easements are an increasingly popular tool used to manage growth and protect the rural heritage of Albemarle County.
While conservationists are celebrating the recent protection of a 770-acre farm in western Albemarle, one easement critic says there can be too much of a good thing and at taxpayers’ expense.
Several local and state programs have protected more than 93,000 acres in the county to help preserve water quality, historic landmarks, agriculture and viewsheds.
“People don’t visit Albemarle County to see our sprawl. They come to see the beautiful places and our vibrant downtown,” said Rex Linville, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s land conservation officer for Albemarle and Greene counties.
Conservation easements are voluntary donations that protect land by removing the ability to subdivide and develop the property. Because stripping development rights lowers a property’s value, easement donors receive a federal tax deduction and a Virginia tax credit.
“The tax benefit may not be enough to support a landowner financially,” Linville said. “Having the option to sell their easement to the county will protect their land they may not have otherwise been able to do.”
Albemarle’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements program uses local tax dollars to purchase development rights from landowners. The program has a budget of $640,795 for fiscal year 2015.
Last month Albemarle purchased an easement on 770 acres from Joe Henley’s family for $363,780.
Henley did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2000, the ACE program has protected 8,325 acres and eliminated 473 development lots.
“With property rights, you deserve the right to preserve it, develop it and protect it,” Linville said.
However, John Lowry, chairman of the Albemarle Economic Development Authority and a representative of the county’s equalization board, said preservation is good, but he is concerned that the county may end up having too much of a good thing.
“The groups in favor of easements want to exterminate the rights to develop,” Lowry said. “You will still have a demand for housing, but if you have limited supply the price goes up.”
Linville said that even though the county has had great success in land conservation, the roughly 24,000 existing unbuilt housing lots mean there is little constraint on supply in the growth area.
Sherry Buttrick, assistant director for easements at the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, said her organization makes sure all easements fit the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
“We stay out of the growth area unless it provides a service, view, or historical protection to the community,” Buttrick said.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation holds a majority of the easements in Albemarle and the rest of the Virginia.
One easement donor, Barbara Fried of Fried LLC, protected more than 500 acres with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation as part of an arrangement for a stormwater mitigation bank.
Buttrick said Fried’s donation shows how easements can also be used to benefit a charitable organization such as Innisfree Village, a life-sharing community for adults with disabilities.
“The land needed for the easement was on mine and Innisfree’s property,” Fried said.
Just like the community at Innisfree, Linville said easements help sustain industries such as agriculture, forestry and tourism.
“The county should be spending money on business development, and protecting our land base is a balanced way to do that,” Linville said.
“This is an attractive place for people to come to, and preserving our rural land is an indirect economic benefit,” Buttrick said.
Lowry said he thinks it’s fine to preserve the look and feel of a rural county, but if you have too much of it, you are hurting other people.
“I think it’s a little bit of a stretch to give taxpayer money to easements for tourism when people aren’t touring these huge plots of land,” Lowry said about the county’s ACE program. “It could have gone directly to actual tourism to attract people to places like Monticello.”
“The already well-to-do landowners are getting pretty substantial credits,” he said. “… If you value protecting the land, go for it, but there is only so much money to go around.”
Linville said the county has to protect rural land as part of tourism because when people visit attractions such as Monticello or local wineries, driving through the rural countryside to get there is part of the experience.
“I believe that supporting land conservations with a solid legal foundation to make them enforceable is key,” he said. “It will really help shape the quality and character of our rural area for generations to come.”
Linville said the public should let elected officials know when enough land is protected.
“That’s largely up to the community to decide about what we want our tax dollars to fund,” he said. “We are preserving the rural land base that the community’s Comprehensive Plan says should be reserved as a space where the agriculture and forestry business can dominate.”