Conserving land, and its favorable effects on water quality and quantity, were issues front and center last Friday at the Potomac Watershed Forum V, held at the Prince William Campus of George Mason University, and attended by nearly 200 people from around the region and as far away as Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck. In Virginia, 60,000 acres of forest and farmland are converted to development each year. Forest lands provide the best land cover for water quality protection, but nearly 80 percent of such lands in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is held privately.
Recognizing that now is the best opportunity to protect these lands, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine issued a challenge in 2006: to preserve, through easement, donation, or public purchase, 400,000 acres across the Commonwealth in four years. Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant, Jr., who also serves as chairman of the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation (VLCF), reminded the attendees that some grant monies are provided through the state’s general fund, and that a small amount comes from vehicle registration fees (that extra dollar or two for the Jamestown anniversary can help preserve open space too). VLCF grants have helped to conserve 32,300 acres in Virginia, a majority of which also provide some level of public access and use. The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement highlighted the need to provide public access so that everyone, especially school children, would have a meaningful experience on the Bay.
Conservation easements can be important in protecting land from development. A conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding, and perpetual agreement created when a landowner gives or sells some property rights to another party who holds those rights in public trust forever. The landowner retains possession and use of his land while conserving the property for future generations. The owner still can occupy the land, sell it or give it away, use the land in any way that does not endanger the resource being protected, and retains the right to exclude others from the property. The Code of Virginia authorizes public bodies – state agencies, counties, or municipalities, park authorities, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) – to receive conservation easements.
For the property owner, conservation easements may qualify for tax credits, federal tax deductions, reduced property taxes, and capital gains tax exclusion. For the public, conservation easements can help safeguard drinking water supplies, reduce storm-water runoff, provide recreational opportunities, and improve air quality. While there are few large tracts of land available in our urbanizing areas, you may know someone nearby who would like to preserve their lands for the benefit of future generations. For more information, log on to www.dcr.virginia/land_conservation_foundation/ , or the VOF Web site, www.virginiaoutdoorsfoundation.org.