Land protection credits come under fire in Virginia

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Virginia Department of Natural Resources LAND WAR: Conservation credits designed to protect Virginia lands from development are coming under increasing fire in Richmond.

Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources
LAND WAR: Con­ser­va­tion cred­its designed to pro­tect Vir­ginia lands from devel­op­ment are com­ing under increas­ing fire in Rich­mond.

RICHMOND, Va. – Con­ser­va­tion ease­ments that sup­pos­ed­ly pro­tect Vir­ginia lands from devel­op­ment are com­ing under increas­ing fire for abu­sive prac­tices.

One law­mak­er calls the sit­u­a­tion at a Fauquier Coun­ty farm “a trav­es­ty.” Oth­ers wor­ry that untold mil­lions of pub­lic dol­lars are dis­ap­pear­ing into pri­vate cof­fers.

Watchdog photo IN THE TRENCHES: Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta led a 2014 legislative fight against oppressive zoning laws. She’s ready to renew the battle at the 2015 General Assembly.

Watch­dog pho­to
IN THE TRENCHES: Fauquier Coun­ty farmer Martha Bone­ta led a 2014 leg­isla­tive fight against oppres­sive zon­ing laws. She’s ready to renew the bat­tle at the 2015 Gen­er­al Assem­bly.

As Watchdog.org report­ed ear­li­er this year, Fauquier farmer Martha Bone­ta accused the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil of tres­pass­ing while sur­veilling her prop­er­ty.

The Vir­ginia Out­doors Fed­er­a­tion, which over­sees the con­ser­va­tion ease­ment on Boneta’s farm, vot­ed 6–0 last month to offer to take over the PEC’s duties. With the VOF offer pend­ing, state law­mak­ers are step­ping in with two pro­pos­als to curb over­reach by pub­lic and pri­vate con­ser­va­tors.

The Vir­ginia Con­ser­va­tion Ease­ment Reform Act would set stan­dards of account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy for pri­vate Vir­ginia land trusts such as PEC, and cre­ate an over­sight com­mit­tee to address dis­putes between land trusts and land own­ers.

The over­sight com­mit­tee will also review and approve all ease­ments from pri­vate land trusts, and pro­vide for sanc­tions against land trusts that vio­late the stan­dards,” said Bryant Osborn, a Culpeper farmer and writer who has fol­lowed the issue.

The bill will pre­vent ease­ments from being held by mul­ti­ple land trusts, and require that Vir­ginia con­ser­va­tion ease­ment tax cred­its be only used for the acqui­si­tion of prop­er­ty to be held by gov­ern­ment land trusts. Fur­ther, the bill will pre­vent any Vir­ginia coun­ty from hold­ing more than 20 per­cent of its land in per­pet­u­al con­ser­va­tion ease­ments,” he wrote.

The sec­ond pro­pos­al would restrict local­i­ties to only tem­po­rary con­ser­va­tion ease­ments. The dura­tion would be con­cur­rent with the review of local com­pre­hen­sive plans.

House Del­e­gate Bren­da Pogge, R-Williams­burg, called PEC’s behav­ior at Boneta’s farm a “trav­es­ty” that had “attract­ed the atten­tion of the Gen­er­al Assem­bly.”

The intent of the code (that cre­at­ed con­ser­va­tion dis­tricts and land trusts) was not to harass the qui­et use of the land, but facil­i­tate it, and pre­serve its beau­ty and pris­tine nature,” Pogge said.

An even big­ger con­cern is the impact on tax­pay­ers.

Vir­ginia issues $100 mil­lion in con­ser­va­tion ease­ment tax cred­its every year, and the pri­vate land trusts — such as PEC — are vir­tu­al­ly unreg­u­lat­ed,” Osborn told Watch­dog.

No one real­ly knows where all those mil­lions go. These two bills are like­ly just the open­ing salvos in a much larg­er bat­tle to fol­low the mon­ey.”

This peti­tion is cir­cu­lat­ing, call­ing for more trans­paren­cy in the con­ser­va­tion ease­ment pro­gram.

Ken­ric Ward is a nation­al reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of its Vir­ginia Bureau. Con­tact him at (571) 319‑9824. @Kenricward