COUNTY OF ALBEMARLE

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

 

AGENDA TITLE:

Recognition of 2002-03 ACE Applicants and Annual Status Report on the Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) Program

 

SUBJECT/PROPOSAL/REQUEST:

Recognition of Applicants from the class of 2002-03 (3rd pool of applicants); Presentation of Annual Status Report on the ACE Program  

 

STAFF CONTACT(S):

Messrs. Tucker, Foley, Davis, Kamptner, Cilimberg, Benish, Goodall

 

LEGAL REVIEW:   YES

 

AGENDA DATE:

October 13, 2004

 

ACTION:                                 INFORMATION:      X

 

CONSENT AGENDA:

  ACTION:                              INFORMATION:   

 

 

ATTACHMENTS:   Yes

 

 

REVIEWED BY:

 

 

 

BACKGROUND:

As per the ACE ordinance, one of the program responsibilities is to provide the Board of Supervisors with a periodic status report on the ACE Program and the current pool of applicants.  This should include recognizing landowners who sold easements to the County in the past year. 

 

The ACE Program was established in the Summer of 2000 with anticipated funding of $1,000,000 per year to acquire easements.  One of the major objectives of the program was to create a voluntary land protection tool that would provide an economic incentive for landowners of modest means to sell an easement to the County since current tax laws provide little or no incentive for donating an easement.  In addition to preserving working farms and forestland from conversion to other uses, the acquisition of conservation easements would help to preserve the rural character of Albemarle County, conserve and protect biodiversity and wildlife habitats, preserve water quality and riparian zones, and promote tourism through the preservation of scenic resources.   Thus far, the ACE Program has nearly completed three application cycles, with the first cycle occurring in 2000, and is in the midst of appraising properties from the fourth cycle.  Though it has taken longer than initially projected to close on properties and acquire easements, the program has been quite successful in terms of total development rights acquired and acres protected. 

 

STRATEGIC PLAN:

Goal: 2.1 – “Protect and/or preserve the County’s rural character”. 

Goal: 2.2 – “Protect and/or preserve the County’s natural resources”.

 

DISCUSSION:

Recognition of Applicants:

At the beginning of the October 13th Board meeting, staff will recognize four applicants from the class of 2002-03 who have each sold an easement to the County within the past year -  Joseph T. Henley, Jr. (for Henley Forest, Inc.), Alan & Ada Kindrick, Darlene Crawford and Michael Swanson.  After a brief powerpoint presentation describing these properties, staff will recognize the individual landowners and provide them with an ACE sign.

 

Program Status Report:

Through the first three application cycles, the County has purchased easements on thirteen properties totaling 2,992 acres. By year end, the County should add another two easements on 732 acres to complete the third application cycle, thereby protecting a total of 3,724 acres.  Though the total appraised value of all fifteen easements was $3,427,000, the County purchased these easements for $2,987,760 - a savings of $439,240.  These savings were due to three factors: 1) outside funding from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation; 2) a contribution from the Piedmont Environmental Council; and 3) easements acquired at an adjusted (reduced) value to the appraised value (as determined by the income grid). 

 

As indicated on Attachment “A” (”Vital Statistics for First Three Rounds of ACE Program”), 9 of 15 properties from the first three applicant pools were identified as having “tourism value”, which qualified the parcels for funding from the transient lodging tax.  In addition, 5 of 15 properties lie in the drinking supply watershed, 10 of 15 are “working” family farms and a total of 229 development rights were retired by putting these properties under easement with the ACE Program.

 

For the fourth application cycle (September 30, 2003 deadline), staff received eight applications.  Since one property was ineligible (scoring too few points) and three others were voluntarily withdrawn, four properties are currently enrolled and were selected to be appraised (see Attachment “B”).  Though the initial appraisals were completed in early August, the Appraisal Review Committee asked the appraiser to make some minor revisions.  Once these revisions are made and the appraisals are approved by the Appraisal Review Committee, staff will ask the Board of Supervisors to formally approve them sometime this fall.  Early next year, it is anticipated the County will purchase easements on these properties.  Though the fourth application pool is smaller than previous pools, the properties received high scores and are well distributed throughout the County.   All have tourism value and are working family farms. 

 

In the next application cycle (October 31, 2004 deadline), the ACE Program should be in a position to acquire more easements than usual because of an anticipated carryover of funds from the 2003-04 budget.  This is largely the result of landowners who have voluntarily withdrawn their applications from the ACE Program for personal reasons.  Staff has already received five applications for this next cycle totaling nearly 1,000 acres.  With several weeks to go before the upcoming application deadline, it appears there will be excellent pool of applicants for this fifth application cycle.  Interest in the program should be sparked by the Piedmont Environmental Council’s outreach program, which includes two workshops scheduled for late September (in Scottsville and Crozet) where ACE staff will discuss the ACE Program and conservation easements.  PEC has also contacted landowners throughout the County to encourage them to attend the workshops and submit an application to the ACE Program.  In addition, the County has begun an advertising campaign that includes a blanket mailing (to all rural landowners with more than 75 acres), media coverage and radio spots to generate additional interest. 

 

Areas for Improvement:

As indicated by the Flow Chart/Timeline for ACE (Attachment “C”), certain steps in the process have created protracted delays in processing an ACE application from start to finish.  The first major delay arose from soliciting appraisals.  The timing of this process has been greatly expedited, however, by renewing the contract agreement (on an annual basis) with the appraiser for three successive application cycles.  The benefits of taking this approach have included: 1) eliminating the need to draft and mail a new RFP each year (savings: 2-3 months); 2) appraising each new cycle of applications is less time consuming and costly to the County because the appraiser has only to update property data collected from previous years; and 3) revisions to the appraisals have been relatively minor since the appraiser is familiar with the process and knows what to expect from the Appraisal Review Committee (savings: 2-3 months). 

 

Other steps in the timeline that cause significant delays include: 1) the determination of theoretical and usable development rights; and 2) the title search, deed recordation and easement purchase.  Though the determination of theoretical and usable development rights was expected to take only two months, it has routinely taken at least three months.  Though ACE staff has tried to reduce the workload of personnel in the Zoning Department by conducting the title searches (at the Clerk’s office), this is a labor intensive process and there does not appear to be a practical solution to further shortening this review process, given current staffing and workload expectations.  However, staff will continue evaluate ways of improving on the timing of this process.

 

The process of closing on an easement, which begins when the Board of Supervisors formally approves a landowners “offer to sell” an easement to the County, is one of the most time consuming aspects of the application cycle.  In the past year alone, it has taken 6-7 months to close on some properties from the day the Board first accepted the landowner’s offer.  Most closing delays are caused by landowner inaction, ongoing revisions to the Deed of Easement, and complications in removing outstanding property liens.  Though these delays are frustrating to all involved, the County Attorney’s Office works as expeditiously as possible to remove these obstacles and assure clear legal title. 

 

In summary, though it has taken longer than initially projected to close on properties and acquire easements, the program has been quite successful.  Staff will continue to evaluate ways to streamline the acquisition process, and will work with the ACE Committee and other County departments to develop practical solutions for streamlining the program.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS:

This is provided for the Board’s information. 

 

ATTACHMENTS 

Attachment A - Vital Statistics for First Three Rounds of ACE Program

Attachment B - ACE Applications from 2003-04 Pool

Attachment C - Flow Chart/Timeline for the Purchase of Development Rights

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