Albemarle County is well known for its mountain views and rural countryside. The ability to quickly jump from the city of Charlottesville to fields, farms and forests is due in part to the success of conservation easements placed on surrounding rural properties.
“We’ve had great success with conservation easements in the community because it’s a beautiful place and landowners are interested,” said Rex Linville, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s land conservation officer for Albemarle and Greene counties.
A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a land conservation organization designed to protect the conservation values of a property, including agriculture, forestry and open space.
Additional benefits include preserving wildlife habitat areas, water and soil quality and opportunities for hunting and fishing.
“The big part of easements is that we are preserving the beautiful countryside, which is one of the reasons people want to visit here and move here,” said local attorney Lee Rasmussen.
Easements protect the land from conversion to other uses such as new housing because they remove the ability to subdivide and develop property. The primary qualification for an easement to be valid under Virginia law is that the property is in a designated rural area in the Comprehensive Plan.
“I think is a very useful tool for retracting development in areas where development shouldn’t be,” said Rasmussen, “and keeping developments in the appropriate places.”
An appreciation for history and a love of the land also can motivate property owners to seek easements.
One such property is Farm Vista on U.S. 29 south. The farm, which traces its heritage back to the 1600s, was part of a huge land track owned by the Robert Lewis family, grandfather of Meriwether Lewis.
Farm Vista has been in Dave and Nancy Bass’s family for 31 years.
“This farm is about 750 acres and it really has a lot of history,” said Dave Bass.
The old farmhouse on the property looks much the same as it did in 1825, and after a University of Virginia professor frequently brought students to see it, the Basses became more aware of the importance of the historical farm and its structures.
“We then decided it was our responsibility to take care of the place,” Bass said.
The old farmhouse is now on the National Register of Historic Places and the entire farm is under a conservation easement.
There are several organizations that landowners can work with to secure an easement depending on the objectives of the easement holder. The largest easement holder in Virginia is the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
The foundation holds the largest easement on Farm Vista. Bass said they liked that the farm was visible from a major highway, open space they feel is in need of preservation.
“You have to love the land,” said Bass. “In our hearts, we feel good about it, because the farm is preserved, especially in the historic section, forever.”
A conservation easement is forever, but under state law, the Virginia Department of Transportation has the right in certain circumstances to use eminent domain to take land for public benefit, such as when roads are built or widened.
“With easements on a landowner’s property, it makes it more difficult for the government to use it, so usually it’s a last-resort scenario and that particular piece of land is the only plausible choice,” Linville said.
Conservation easements also bring economic advantages such as reduced property taxes, a federal tax deduction and state tax credits in return for the loss of development rights.
The tax credit has led to Virginia being one of the most protected states in the country, and Albemarle County has the largest number of acres protected among Virginia localities, growing from 30,000 acres to 90,000 acres over the past decade.
“Once you could start getting a Virginia tax credit in 2000 and could transfer them in 2002, the amount of interested folks in easements definitely increased because there was more of an incentive to do so,” said local Realtor Loring Woodriff.
Woodriff said it’s easier to market properties with easements or easement potential.
“If a property already has an easement, hopefully there are other easements around it so you can tell people what they have in store for them when they buy,” Woodriff said. “This is a way to protect the setting you are buying in to.”
Easements also protect farm land, a key goal of the Piedmont Environment Council’s Buy Fresh Buy Local program.
“By promoting local food, we are preserving farm land,” Linville said. “Farmers will stay in business if they receive a sustainable income from their farms.”