Photo by Lloyd Ferguson
Maintaining Fauquier’s Lush Landscape
Driving out route 211 through the western entrance of Warrenton, travelers cross a “hard edge” where the landscape rapidly changes from that of shopping plazas and housing developments, to open vistas and rolling fields as far as the eye can see. Immediately beyond the stoplight at Van Roijen Street on the southern side of the highway is one such vista that will fortunately remain that way in perpetuity. Saint Leonard’s Farm, which emcompasses 850 acres, was placed under conservation easement (a long term agreement on the future management of a property’s resources) by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation in June of 2003. This is just one example of the nearly 105,000 acres of land in Fauquier County that will remain pristine and be spared the concrete, infrastructure, and development of a housing project or business complex.
Working to protect the open space, history, and heritage of this county are several different entities with a focus on land conservation: the Land Trust of Virginia (LTV) in Middleburg, and two Warrenton-based organizations: the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC). The mission of these organizations is to promote, protect, and preserve the open space land, natural resources, rural economy, history, and beauty of the region. Fauquier County is only one of the counties where the conservation organizations work with landowners to ensure the long-term preservation of Virginia’s rural landscape. The LTV protects nearly 18,000 acres in 14 counties, whereas the PEC permanently protects close to 8,500 acres in a nine-county service area, and the VOF protects over 800,000 preserved acres in 107 counties, with Fauquier leading the way at roughly 71,000 VOF-protected acres.
“Landowners donate conservation easements out of a love of the land, and out of a strong desire to be a good steward of the land and water resources they manage,” says Michael Kane, PEC’s Director of Conservation. “But also, in recognition of the many public benefits of good land and water stewardship, a number of financial incentives are available to encourage landowners to donate conservation easements.”
Current conservation statutes are the Virginia Conservation Easement Act, the Virginia Open-Space Land Act, and the Virginia Land Conservation Incentive Act. Established in 1999, the latter offers tax incentives for landowners to protect the open space in the region. According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Land Preservation Tax Credit allows an income tax credit for 40 percent of the fair market value of the donated land or conservation easement*. By placing land under easement, the landowner relinquishes some, or all, of the development rights to the land while retaining ownership for themselves and future owners.
In some cases, an easement doesn’t necessarily mean no development or no division of property. The LTV recently did an easement of Atoka Farm. “It is 350 acres and could have had 20 divisions, or 20 houses. The owner agreed to reduce this to three divisions, not none, but three. There was already one house on the property, so the easement will allow two more. We were happy to accommodate and take his easement donation because it eliminated 17 homes.” says Sally Price, executive director of the LTV.
Price adds, “Conservation easements are complicated. But if a landowner taps into professionals who have easement experience, like an appraiser, attorney, and accredited land trust, the whole process becomes a whole lot simpler. We love helping people accomplish their conservation goals. It’s very rewarding for everyone involved.”
The success of the act is proven by the statistics. Prior to 1999, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation received an average of 45 annual easement donations during the 1990s. In the first year following the Act, that number rose to 179 individual easements with as many as 455 easement donations in a single year. According to the 2017 annual report from the VOF, 95 percent of Virginians live within 10 miles of VOF-protected land.
The conservation easement is an agreement on the future management of a property. As such, both landowners and conservation organizations have a role in stewardship. The VOF stewardship program aims to ensure that the conservation goals of easements are maintained in perpetuity. All stewardship programs include staff to visit conserved land on a regular basis, respond to landowner questions, review concerns of pending activity, and track land records, among other duties. The success of permanent easements rests on a relationship built on trust, transparency and flexibility between management agencies and landowners to accommodate changing needs.
Without incentives to place land under easement and the watchful eye of elected officials who emphasize the slow and deliberate growth of the region, property owners could be enticed to subdivide or sell their acres to developers, and in virtually no time at all Fauquier County could more closely resemble eastern Loudoun County. As of the July 2017 census numbers, Loudoun County has seen a 27 percent increase in population since 2010, adding 85,733 residents to its communities, whereas Fauquier has increased less than six percent, adding only 3,991 residents in the same amount of time.
“Easements have played a key role over the last 40 years in creating that hard edge between towns and the countryside in Fauquier, as opposed to the sprawling development we see in other parts of the region,” says Brett Glymph, VOF’s executive director and a former assistant attorney general in the Real Estate and Land Use Section of the Virginia Attorney General’s office.
According to the VA Department of Conservation and Recreation, of the estimated total land area in Virginia, 25.27 million acres, over 4.0 million acres is protected as of July 2017. The Fauquier County board of supervisors maintains a careful balance between conservation and future development opportunities. It is not by chance that our local landscape has retained its historic and rural beauty. It is through dogged-determination and the foresight of elected officials who continue to choose history, character, and quality of life over development and population influx.