Dina Gilison Brigish spent her childhood in the New York countryside, 35 miles from Manhattan. As the years passed, the city began to absorb the area she knew.
“I literally saw every piece of property get divided up into a subdivision and it all go away,” Brigish said. “I always felt if there was anything I could do to prevent that in the future, I was going to do it.”
When Brigish moved to Schuyler and established The White Pig Bed and Breakfast, Albemarle County’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements program was exactly what she was looking for. In 2016, the county paid Brigish to sign away development rights on her 161.21-acre property.
On Wednesday, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors will decide which of this year’s four applicants to prioritize for ACE funding.
“It's one of those things that we can do for our grandchildren and for our environment as a whole. There will be some places that won't be covered in houses,” said Board Chair Ann H. Mallek, who has been involved in the program since its inception in 2000.
Albemarle County focuses on buying easements from mid- to low-income landowners using an income grid.
“It was set up for family farmers,” said Ches Goodall, who coordinates the ACE program. “Before that, easements were the game of pretty wealthy people, who had a lot of income. By making a donation, they would save money by having all these state and federal deductions against their income.”
The ACE program hires an independent appraiser to calculate the difference between the parcel of land if it were maximally developed and if it were preserved. The county could then offer the landowner a percentage of that easement value based on their income.
The lowest income bracket – $55,000 per year and below – is eligible for 100 percent of the easement value. Those in the next income bracket – $55,001 to $65,000 – could receive 94% of the easement value.
“It kept dropping until you got to about $200,000, and we were down to about 4 percent of easement value, at which point we were basically telling the landowner ¬– you have the income,” Goodall said. “You probably need to donate the easement.”
Brigish heard about the ACE program just after a divorce had divided her property. The ACE payment allowed her to buy back the other piece and continue to run her miniature pig sanctuary and vegan bed and breakfast at The White Pig.
On average, Albemarle County spends $1,817 on the ACE program per acre it conserves. That has meant $12.4 million in taxpayer funds and $2.6 million in grants for 9,284 acres of land.
The county allocated about $1,000,000 to the program per year until spending cuts in 2007 and 2008. Now, the county plans to spend about $500,000 on the program every year until 2023.
“I'm especially supportive of looking at other things we can strengthen, whether it's natural heritage, the endangered species, the biodiversity elements...” Mallek said. “Maybe there are 25 acres in the middle of a larger piece, where all these really exotic things are that some landowner would really like to protect but can't afford to.”
Landowners largely opt into the environmental protections they put on their easement.
“We really don't go into a lot of details about how a property is managed. The central thing we really focus on, in terms of forest management, is they have to adhere to all the state water quality control laws, which they're going to have to do anyway, to prevent erosion and sedimentation of streams,” Goodall said.
Brigish said the hilliness and biodiversity on her own land helped motivate her participation in ACE.
“If you start building or logging, those critical slopes can become destroyed and it will wash into the waterways and pollute it. It also kills lots of wildlife and drives them out of the area,” Brigish said. “If you go onto the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website and look up animals and birds that live in Central Virginia, I have seen every one.”