Prince William Conservation Forum: Federal, state and local decision makers discuss challenges and opportunities
Hosted by the Prince William Conservation Alliance on May 17, 2010
Most of the forum discussion came in the extensive question and answer period. The highlights include:
If a parcel is already enrolled in an agricultural/forestall district for lower taxes, can an easement still generate a tax credit?
Silver Lake Middle School damaged a rare forest, because the school system was not notified about the environmentally sensitive portion of the site until it was too late to alter the site plan. How can we identify such sites sooner in the development process?
Revisions proposed in draft Environment Chapter, include requirements for additional environmental data to be provided earlier in rezoning proposals.
Did Dominion Power route their proposed power line across Silver Lake, in part to avoid conservation easements that already were in place?
The Open Space Lands Act protects easements held by public agencies, requiring any damage to such easements to be mitigated by additional easements of equal or greater area and value.
Easements held under a different authority, can be condemned by state agencies (and all easements are vulnerable to Federal condemnation).
However, once power lines or other threats are formalized on a map or other document, the Attorney General had advised the Virginia Outdoor Foundation not to accept a “spite” easement intended to block a defined project.
Stormwater sediment control requires buffers. Sediment was cited as major water quality threat in the very first Council on Environmental Quality. What is being proposed to address this problem?
Rep. Gerry Connolly has introduced legislation to ensure that jurisdictions that actively seek to manage stormwater impacts are not at a competitive disadvantage to jurisdictions that minimize controls on that source of pollution.
Fairfax has protected its stream valley corridors, charging the Park Authority with management responsibilities. Would that work in Prince William?
Agencies with the capacity to manage stream valley resources should be responsible for any such corridors. The Parks, Open Space, and Trails chapter of the Comprehensive Plan established a new category of Linear and resource-Based Parks.
How can we communicate effectively about easements, so landowners understand them better? Should we identify specific areas and contact landowners in those places?
Government support for an easement acquisition program is essential. After Governor Kaine set a target of conserving 400,000 acres, Virginia acquired more easements in 5 years than had accomplished in the previous 30 years.
In Prince William, the draft Environment Chapter includes action strategies for outreach, including establishing distribution points for information on conservation opportunities at key government agencies, including the Tax Assessment Office.
One key target audience is the Commissioner of Revenue/Tax Assessment Office for each jurisdiction. The commissioners come into contact with families that might benefit from easements, avoiding forced sales to pay estate taxes. In addition, military bases offer an opportunity to find funding for easements within targeted areas.
Do easements need to be compatible with local comprehensive plans?
Section 10.1-1701 of the Open-space Land Act states, “The use of real property for open-space land shall conform to the official comprehensive plan for the area in which the property is located.”
Local governments’ objections typically will kill any opportunity for Virginia Outdoor Foundation to support an easement.
How can cluster development be used to conserve environmentally-sensitive portions of a parcel?
Some large undeveloped properties remain in Northern Virginia. In large undeveloped properties, new construction may be located in one area and large portions of land may be left undeveloped and protected forever by easement.
The Virginia Outdoor Foundation requires that land protected by easements have no more than 1% impervious surface.
Redevelopment also offers opportunities to rearrange land use patterns, creating pocket parks and ribbons of greenways.
Would Prince William support clustering in the Rural Crescent so undeveloped portions could be protected by conservation easements?
One concern is extending sewer services into the Rural Crescent to support cluster development. Cluster development could work, with sewers, in the mid-county area.
Guidance on such development was dropped from Land Use chapter of Comprehensive Plan, but is in draft Environment chapter now.
Trails require maintenance, Who is responsible for maintenance so they do no become litter piles.
In Prince William, the Park Authority must generate 50% of its funding, so their focus is on development that generates revenue from many customers rather than passive areas. Neighbors may be partners, such as at Merrimac Farm where trails are mowed by neighboring property owners.
Since we are not inventing new land in Northern Virginia, we need to take advantage of opportunities to acquire property from willing sellers, even when full funding for managing a site is unclear, before we lose the possibility permanently.