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Westmoreland Sheriff’s report

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County supervisors agree to land conservancy request

This Monday night the Westmoreland Supervisors agreed to accept conservation easements in partnership with Northern Neck Land Conservancy. Such partnerships were previously established in neighboring King George, Northumberland and Richmond counties with the Conservancy. A fifth partnership with Lancaster will be ratified at a later date.
Northern Neck Land Conservancy Field Director Joe Thompson returned on Feb. 14 to

field questions associated with the request initially presented in November 2010. The Westmoreland supervisors had delayed action at that time in order to gather additional information concerning potential administrative costs and liabilities.
In the end the board determined that the benefits associated with preservation of open areas outweighed costs of defending easements in the courts. During the 60-day review period it was established that no recorded conservation easement had been challenged in any Virginia court. In the event of a challenge, the Conservancy’s local government partner would be charged with defending the easement at public expense.
“The county would be a co-partner with Northern Neck Land Conservancy if the board agrees to accept the conservation easements,” explained Westmoreland Planning Director Robert Fink Monday. Fink advised that “legwork would be provided by the Conservancy” and not the County Land Use Office. “Legwork” would include annual site inspections and establishment of best management practices on the easement properties.
Thompson explained that the Conservancy will retain responsibility for developing appropriate management protocols and monitoring duties.
“The county will have the responsibility of defending an easement if there is a challenge,” he explained.
After purporting to know of no instance in which an easement had been challenged in a Virginia court, Board Chairman Woody Hynson then asked County Attorney Tom Bondurant to weigh in.
“Putting property aside in a conservation easement is completely voluntary on behalf of the landowner,” Bondurant commented.
“There will be no cost to the county but [accepting the Conservancy’s request] will enhance the county’s ability to maintain an agricultural atmosphere.
“Some board members had concern about the cost of defending an easement, but no [conservation] easement has ever been contested within the commonwealth and no one knew of one being contested in the United States. I don’t know how such an easement could be overturned unless it could be established that a person was mentally ill when the property was put in the conservation easement,” Bondurant explained.
“We make sure the property owner is comfortable with it,” Thompson then stated.
“We view the relationship as a trust the property owners place in us when they move forward.”
Thompson further advised that most of the easements involve parcels of at least 100 acres. In those instances, “the easements are usually placed with a state [agency],” but the state does not as readily accept easements involving smaller tracts. The local government and the Conservancy would jointly hold the smaller tract easements the state would not accept,” he told the members of the Westmoreland County Board.
“Conservation easements are useful tools to advance a number of useful purposes,” interjected Robert Fink.
“And,” said Thompson, “we have in-house expertise, so this won’t place a burden on the county.”
“The board can choose whatever easements they would want to accept,” explained County Administrator Norm Risavi.
“As I understand it, the state in only interested in the large parcels and that’s why there’s a need for the Northern Neck Land Conservancy to come to us with this request,” Hynson told the other members of the Board.
Every individual easement has to be voted on by this board. There could be a limit to how much land this county can set aside for tax purposes. A time could come when the county could no longer afford to lose tax revenue.”
Easement properties would be included in the Commissioner of Revenue’s land use program whose discounted values result in lower real estate tax bills as an incentive for keeping properties in active timber and agricultural production. District 5 Supervisor Larry Roberson was the only Board member who declined to support the partnership.
No public hearing occurred, but several private citizens shared their assessment during the March 14 public comment segment.
Montross Tea Party President Frank Sherman shared concern that conservation easements “represent a departure from the historic picture of land ownership.
“Perpetuity is a long time,” Sherman warned, adding that the county’s tax base could be greatly impacted by a large number of conservation easements.
“The saving grace would be voting on each easement individually,” he advised.
Bill Horn followed Sherman to the podium and remarked that implementation will be crucially important because it’s impossible to project conditions forty or fifty years from now.
“There could be a change in situation nationally that could impact certain regions,” the New York native told the members of the board.
“Why shackle the hand of a future generation?
“As more land is set aside, taxes will go up for other people.”
Prior to voting “present” on the Conservancy request, Roberson commented, “I’m still not comfortable with the request.”
“And ‘present’ is a ‘no’ vote,” Norm Risavi said.

Betsy Ficklin

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