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BoS to decide whether to take custody of open easements

When the Westmoreland Supervisors meet on the night of Feb. 14 a top action item will be acceptance or rejection of Northern Neck Land Conservancy’s December 2010 request that the county share custody of dedicated conservation easements. Acceptance would result in inspection and enforcement responsibilities.
Despite longstanding policies that encourage preservation of open space and the jurisdiction’s historically rural environment, the supervisors have taken the maximum amount of time allowed by law to deliberate the merits of the request. Other Northern Neck jurisdictions have already accepted joint custody of land conservancy easements.
According to the proposed agreement, the conservancy would be expected to provide the county with technical

expertise and other assistance associated with easement monitoring and administration. The county would have the ability to decline acceptance of the custodial obligation if officials determined that an individual property’s inclusion in the program failed to comply with local land use policies and goals.
Westmoreland County’s Land Use Office would have the responsibility of maintaining records and determining compliance with the comprehensive plan. Land Use staff would additionally be charged with enforcing the terms of the conservation easement.
According to Northern Neck Land Conservancy Executive Director Joe Thompson, the 600-member private land trust will provide the expertise needed to prepare the easements and execute the appropriate set of monitoring protocols.
Zoning Administrator Robert Fink evaluated the advantages and disadvantages associated with local acceptance of the conservancy’s request. Benefits included a likelihood that more  easements would be dedicated due to the reduced probability that the easements would be challenged in the courts. Any legal challenge would be defended by the local government.
The consideration on the minds of the five county supervisors was costs associated with Land Use Office staff’s additional responsibilities to review, administer, enforce and even defend accepted easements. Fink has advised the supervisors that the risk of incurring costs associated with court challenges can be reduced if the county declines to accept custody of easements “where there appears to be an unusual risk or liability.”
Northern Neck Land Conservancy advises in its promotional brochure that “the primary reason most landowners donate conservation easements is to preserve the natural, scenic and historical integrity of their land forever.”
“Many want to establish a legacy for their children and grandchildren,” the conservancy relates. “At the same time however, placing an easement on your property may make good financial sense for it could provide for a secure retirement, or address medical expenses, or create an estate which includes land as well as cash.
“There are significant tax advantages associated with a donation. Typically, to realize those financial benefits an easement must be given in perpetuity, be given to a qualified governmental or non-profit organization, have a qualified appraisal and be donated exclusively for ‘conservation purposes’ characterized by significant natural, scenic, historic, scientific, recreational or open space value.”

Betsy Ficklin

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