Policy Update

Governor McAuliffe Announces Funding for Farmland Preservation Grants in Six Localities

On Monday, January 12, 2015, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that six Virginia localities had been awarded a total of more than $1,581,000 in funding to preserve working farmland through the localities’ purchase of development rights (PDR) programs. The named localities include Albemarle County, Fauquier County, James City County, Stafford County, Clarke County, and the City of Virginia Beach. PDR programs provide funding for the purchase of perpetual conservation easements from landowners, as opposed to many conservation easement programs which rely on landowners to donate easements. The funding will be administered through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). You can read the full press release here.

Placing a Priority on Protecting Farmland Near Expanding Urban Areas

What can we learn from this press release? First, we can learn something about Governor McAuliffe’s conservation priorities.

Without exception, all of the six named localities are located in or around areas of higher population density. James City County borders both the City of Williamsburg and the City of Newport News, and it has experienced a great deal of growth over the past fifteen years, particularly in the New Town area just outside of Williamsburg. Albemarle County surrounds the City of Charlottesville. Fauquier County, Stafford County, and Clarke County are all in Northern Virginia, which contains much of the urban sprawl surrounding Washington, D.C. Virginia Beach is itself a city, although its territory encompasses more open land than one might initially realize. (Zoom in on Google Maps to verify that for yourself.)

It makes sense that Governor McAuliffe’s administration would choose to focus on protecting farmland near areas of high growth that literally might be subdivided at any moment. Notably absent from the list of localities were (1) the Richmond area and (2) the entire region of Virginia to the southwest of Richmond and Charlottesville (other than portions of Albemarle County, of course), including Southside Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

A Surprisingly Specific Announcement

Secondly, it is noteworthy that Governor McAuliffe specifically reiterated his administration’s goal of permanently preserving 400,000 acres of land, stating:

Today’s announcement takes another step toward my administration’s goal of permanently conserving 400,000 acres of open space and working lands across Virginia. Last year, we provided more than $1 million from this program to eight localities. With today’s announcement of new recipients, we are providing more than $1.5 million to further our conservation goal. Preserving our working farmland is a great way to help our largest private sector industry, agriculture, and work toward building the New Virginia Economy.

Governor McAuliffe had previously announced this goal, and so it is not new. However, Governor McAuliffe’s administration has been sending mixed signals regarding this conservation goal since he took office in early 2014, and this is the first mention of a specific number of acres that I have seen in several months. Note that Governor McAuliffe did not state a date by which he hoped to reach that goal. Given that Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward has previously described it as being a “four-year” goal, it would seem safe to assume that Governor McAuliffe still intends to do so by the end of his term as governor in January 2018. Regardless, this otherwise-specific announcement affirming his commitment to further land preservation in Virginia is refreshing.

Land Preservation Programs in Virginia: Perhaps Less Uncertain?

It remains to be seen whether Governor McAuliffe’s reiteration of his support for preserving 400,000 acres of land by 2018 will have any effect on the future of other land preservation programs. In particular, the land preservation tax credit has increasingly come under attack as budget troubles in Richmond continue. See, for example, “Tax Breaks Should Benefit Most Virginians – Not Just a Sainted Few,” an opinion piece published in the Virginian-Pilot this past November. However, Governor McAuliffe’s recent press release provides a bit of hope.

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Derrick P. Fellows

Derrick P. Fellows is an attorney with Hawthorne & Hawthorne, P.C. in Victoria, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @dpfellows.

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