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