Conservation Easement Priority
Updated for January 11, 2005 Work Session
Board Identified Strategic Priority for inclusion in FY 07 – FY 10 Strategic Plan
Protect the County’s Natural Resources
Board Priority: Increase land in conservation easements by 50% in 4 years in all ways – using both public and private sources and the use of educational means.
The Comprehensive Plan strongly supports conservation easements by giving conservation programs the highest priority for achieving Rural Area goals. A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement negotiated between a landowner and a “holder” (typically a public agency or a non-profit conservation organization) in which landowners place specific restrictions on the use and development of their land. The landowners retain ownership of the land and, in most cases, can tailor the terms of the easements to meet their own goals for the property. However, to be eligible for various income and estate tax benefits, the easement must meet a minimum standard of protection and be considered a “qualified conservation contribution.” By promoting responsible stewardship of the property, an easement provides a lasting benefit to the public by protecting one or more resources, including sizable parcels of productive land for agriculture and forestry; wildlife habitat; air and water quality; and historic sites and areas. Although most conservation easements apply to entire properties, some apply to specific resources such as riparian buffers or historic structures that are worthy of protection. They also reduce development potential and address efficient service delivery goals.
Based on current data available to the Planning Department, 49,242 acres of the County is protected by conservation easements. Approximately 89.7 percent of this acreage is protected by easements donated to or purchased by entities other than Albemarle County; 6.5 percent by easements purchased through the County’s ACE program; and 3.7 percent in easements on the preservation tracts of Rural Preservation Developments.
The number of acres placed into easements during the past five years (all easement holders) is as follows:
2000 - 5,578 acres
2001 - 3,992 acres
2002 - 3,504 acres
2003 - 5,325 acres
2004 - 6,735 acres
Total = 25,134 acres (Average = 5,026 acres/year)
The following entities work with landowners to assist with and/or hold voluntary conservation easements on their properties:
Since 2000, the County has funded the Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) Program, which purchases conservation easements from landowners. The ACE program especially benefits landowners who will not benefit from the tax incentives provided through an easement donation due to their incomes. Between the years 2000 and 2003, 3,112 acres were placed into the ACE program. There are 2,992 acres currently under review for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 rounds. Including the past two rounds, the ACE program will have brought to date a total of 6,104 acres into conservation easements.
Rural Preservation Developments (RPDs), a clustered development method of subdivision, are required to have one parcel (preservation parcel) with a minimum of 40 acres placed into a conservation easement. The Board created the Public Recreational Facilities Authority (PRFA) to hold these open space conservation easements. The PRFA also is a co-holder of the ACE program easements. The Rural Areas section of the Comprehensive Plan recommends that rural cluster developments become the mandatory form of subdivision in the Rural Areas and staff is currently reviewing a cluster development zoning ordinance amendment. If cluster developments become the standard for subdividing in the Rural Areas, a direct benefit will be that land in conservation easements will substantially increase. The number of acres placed into this type of easement depends on the rate of subdivision, making projections of acreages to be placed into preservation parcel easements hard to predict. The PRFA also accepts donated easements and has accepted over 1,100 acres voluntarily donated into conservation easements.
Although not permanent easements, land in Agricultural/Forestal Districts provides restrictions on land and limitations on subdivisions for up to ten years. The Rural Areas section of the Comprehensive Plan calls for a review of the use value tax system. If this review determines that the ability to receive Use Value Tax (land use tax) should be restricted to only those properties under conservation easements, the result would be an inducement for landowners to join a District or place their land under easement. The preservation of the land would not be permanent in an Ag/For District, however, the ten-year enrollment period would be a disincentive for land speculation and would further the goals and objectives of the Comprehensive Plan.
Issues/Challenges to address:
· Easement donations are subject to the willingness of a finite and limited number of landowners to donate land. In general, these land owners benefit from the tax advantages of donated easements, their land meets the stringent legal requirements for land to be placed into an easement (preservation of specific resources), and they desire to permanently preserve their property.
· Yearly easement acreages fluctuate due to circumstances not under County control, as most easements are held by non-profit entities not related to the County (see list above).
· The County has two easement programs: ACE and the PRFA
- The ACE program is dependent on annual budget allocations
- Increased land costs will continue to adversely affect the amount of land that can be placed into the ACE program, unless funding is increased to include program costs
- ACE program costs for brochures, invitations, appraisals, signs, etc. reduce the amount of funds available to purchase easements
- To achieve a higher level applicant interest in ACE, an expanded marketing plan would be required
- With the exception of ACE acreage, PRFA held easements are obtained either by donation of individual landowners or are the result of an RPD subdivision
- The PRFA does not actively solicit donations of land
· Consideration of linking Use Value Tax eligibility to enrollment into an Agricultural Forestal District or requiring properties to be in conservation easements in order to receive Use Value Tax could provide an incentive for long term and/or permanent protection of land.
· Research is being conducted to determine if implementation of the phasing of subdivisions would adversely affect donations of conservation easements; the concern is that the value of land would decrease with restrictions on the number of subdivisions permitted over time, even though the ultimate number of lots allowed would remain the same.
· Staff anticipates that as the acreage in conservation easements increases, there will be a need for additional staff to review, monitor, and market easement programs and to process cluster developments. This would involve:
- review of deed of easements, field visits for baseline documentation, ongoing monitoring, proactively seeking landowners into the programs, providing staff support to committees that require additional meetings
- review of cluster development subdivisions, including establishing resources that should be protected on properties to be subdivided as cluster developments.
· Should eligibility for the Use Value Tax be dependent upon the land being in an Ag/For District or permanent conservation easement?
County Park Land
Although county park land is not held in permanent open space conservation easements per se, the Board may want to consider including the acreage in County park land that will be obtained that fulfills the Goals, Objectives and Strategies of Chapter 2 of the Comprehensive Plan, Natural Resources and Cultural Assets within this objective as an additional way for the County to increase the protection and preservation of our natural resources.
According to Parks and Recreation’s recent citizen survey “Nature centers, natural areas, and nature trails was picked as the number 1 recreational facility that respondent households had a need for from a list of 27 possible indoor and outdoor recreation facilities. 63% of County residents have a need for this type of natural setting for recreation. Improved access to rivers and trails ranked 5th at 44%.” These types of recreational areas ranked as the second and third highest unmet need respectively out of the 27 possible choices.
County park land is acquired by various means. The original park lands developed for recreation use in the mid to late 1960’s were originally purchased by the County for water supply purposes and included Beaver Creek, Chris Greene, Mint Springs and Totier Creek, which were later designated parks. More recently the County has purchased properties both on its own and in partnership with the City of Charlottesville for the purpose of developing parks. The County seeks proffers for park land and greenway development during the developmental review process. The County also accepts donations of park lands from private entities and individuals. In 2004, the County received a 600 acre donation of land to create Byrom Park. The park land designation for property generally carries with it an extra level of protection and review making the future conversion of park land to other uses problematic and unlikely.
Currently 2,755 acres of the County is protected as County park land and is managed and/or maintained for public recreation use by the Albemarle County Parks and Recreation Department. 87.2% of this acreage is owned by the County of Albemarle, 11.9% is jointly owned by the County of Albemarle and the City of Charlottesville, and .9% is owned privately and protected by restrictive covenant agreement with the County.
It is important to note that there are other public park lands within the County that are not County-owned. The City of Charlottesville owns acreage managed by Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority in Sugar Hollow (1,024 acres) and Ragged Mountain (989 acres) primarily for water supply purposes and allow limited recreational use. Additionally, 14,890 acres of Albemarle County is included in the Shenandoah National Park. These parklands would not be recommended for inclusion in this objective.
If the County uses the current baseline number of 49,242 acres, to reach the objective of increasing the acreage in permanent conservation easements by 50% by June 30, 2010, and an additional 24,621 acres would need to be placed under permanent conservation easement. Since the current number does not include the total acreage placed into conservation easements by all easement holders during the calendar year 2005, it is recommended that the baseline number be recalculated prior to the beginning of the strategic plan, based on the 2005 year total.
If the Board desires to broaden their approach to this objective to include park acreage that is obtained that fulfills the Goals, Objectives and Strategies of Chapter 2 of the Comprehensive Plan, Natural Resources and Cultural Assets, the objective statement could be broadened to include those efforts.
Staff recommends that either way the Board decides to approach this objective, that the Board review the County’s performance on an annual basis to determine if the acreage targeted in the goal is appropriate or whether it should be accelerated.
By June 30, 2010, increase the acreage of permanent conservation easements by 50% or ________ additional acres using public and private means.
By June 30, 2010, increase the total combined acreage in permanent conservation easements and qualifying public parkland* by 50% or ______ additional acres using public and private means.
*Note: “Qualifying parkland” is land that fulfills the Goals, Objectives and Strategies of Chapter 2 of the Comprehensive Plan, Natural Resources and Cultural Assets
Annual Performance Measure:
____ (total number divided by 4 years) additional acres are placed into permanent conservation easements or permanent conservation easements and County park land each fiscal year.
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