2010 Annual PWCA Conservation Forum: Federal, state and local decision makers discuss challenges and opportunities
May 17, 2010 at the McCoart Government Center
Two quotes stood out at the start of Prince William Conservation Alliance’s “Land Conservation in Northern Virginia” forum on Monday, May 17:
“Metrics are essential for guiding land use decisions,” stated by Gerry Connolly, 11th District Representative in the US Congress, as he highlighted how specific goals for tree canopy coverage and parkland acquisition in the Comprehensive Plan has spurred Fairfax County to protect its environmental assets.
“It’s like drinking the water in your bathtub,” is how Occoquan District Supervisor Mike May described the need to manage stormwater and wastewater discharges flowing into the Occoquan Reservoir, a primary source of drinking water in Northern Virginia.
A crowd of 75 interested and influential people participated in the forum, held in the Board Chambers at the McCoart Government Center.
In addition to Representative Connolly and Supervisor May, three state officials spoke at the Forum: Robert Davenport, Director with the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation; Bob Lee, Executive Director of the Virginia Outdoor Foundation; and Sara Richardson, Land Conservation Coordinator with the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation.
Also in attendance were State Senator George Barker and Occoquan Mayor Earnie Porta, plus a number of county officials, conservation advocates, landowners, local developers, and interested citizens.
Discussion focused on how state tax credits, local land use planning, and creative partnerships can help conserve streams, forests, wildlife habitat, and other “green infrastructure” assets while population growth and suburbanization continue in Prince William County.
Kim Hosen, Executive Director of the Prince William Conservation Alliance, started the session by describing how the preservation of Merrimac Farm has been the most notable conservation success in Prince William. In 2008, that 302-acre farm was acquired through a partnership between Marine Corps Base Quantico, the Virginia Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries and the Conservation Alliance, with support from the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Virginia Dept. of Conservation and Recreation.
Supervisor May acknowledged the high level of citizen interest in conservation, especially preservation of trees and trail corridors. He highlighted the draft revision of the Environmental Chapter in the Comprehensive Plan, which calls for more environmental information early in the development process, and recognized two specific conservation priorities in the Occoquan District, the American Legion and Mason’s Ridge properties.
Robert Davenport noted the need for clarity in planning processes, so everyone understands which areas are slated for development and which are prioritized for preservation. He noted that Virginia is losing 120 farms annually, and will lose 1 million acres of forestland in the next 20 years.
The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation (VLCF) has two major programs for conservation: providing grants to acquire property rights and fee-simple purchases, and establishing criteria for the land conservation tax credit program. Only 3% of the VLCF grant funds have been spent in Prince William County (all for Merrimac Farm).
Rep. Gerry Connolly emphasized that conservation is an American value, drawing on the environmental heritage of Teddy Roosevelt and emphasizing that conservation is a bipartisan issue. He noted that the Fairfax County Board of County Supervisors, on which he served for 14 years, adopted its environmental policy unanimously. He contrasted the continuing increases in stormwater runoff to successes in reducing pollution from agriculture and wastewater facilities to the Chesapeake Bay. Redevelopment offers an opportunity to reduce impacts of existing development, even at places as urbanized as Tysons Corner.
Sarah Richardson noted the economic value of open space for tourism, which employs 10% of Virginians. She discussed Virginia’s “three legged stool” for land preservation: (1) grants for land acquisition, (2) purchase of development rights (PDR’s), and (3) conservation easements.
The state provides matching grants for jurisdictions with active PDR programs, supporting local efforts to conserve farmland and environmental resources. Virginia also has a very successful tax credit incentive for private conservation easements, with nearly 40 land trusts working to acquire easements.
Sara noted that 80% of the acreage permanently preserved in Virginia is achieved through conservation easements, and 80% of private conservation easements are held by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation. When easements reduce a locality’s total land value, the state provides some compensation by adjusting the “composite index,” which increases state funding levels for schools.
Bob Lee explained that the Virginia Outdoors Foundation is a state entity, created by the General Assembly and with a board appointed by the governor, intended to preserve and steward Virginia’s natural and cultural heritage. The VOF is authorized to hold any and all interests in natural and heritage lands – particularly conservation easements.
Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements that protect the conservation values and purposes of land in perpetuity. Locally, the VOF owns 2500 acres on Bull Run Mountain, and has easements on ten properties in Prince William.
Most of the forum discussion came in the extensive question and answer period. Keep reading...