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2012 good year for protecting land

By RUSTY DENNEN

Virginia’s land trusts were busy in 2012, putting thousands of acres in conservation easements, according to year-end reports by  the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Piedmont Environmental Council.

 For example, VOF—by far the state’s largest easement holder—placed an additional 26,375 acres under  protection from future development last year. That’s a rate of about three acres every hour, the agency says. It completed 127 easements in 53 jurisdictions.

 A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust to permanently protect natural, scenic and cultural resources on their property.

 Among VOF easements is one protecting nearly a mile of a state-designated native brook trout stream in Covington, including part of a public hiking trail, bordering George Washington National Forest.

 Gov. Bob McDonnell has praised the agency for its work, which also includes thousands of conservation easement acres in the Fredericksburg area. Among those, eight easements were completed in Fauquier County, totaling about 1,119 acres. Four easements accepted last year in Orange County protect about 1,156 acres, according to VOF. Nearly 3,000 acres were put under conservation easements during the year in the region.

 After his election in 2008,  the governor pledged to conserve 400,000 acres of open space during his term.

  “It’s a win-win when private landowners partner to conserve open space, working farms and forests,” Doug Domenech, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources, said in a press release. “We all benefit from enjoying Virginia’s natural beauty. It’s good for the environment as well.”

 The Piedmont Environmental Council on Tuesday released a list of all conservation easements during 2012 in its nine-county service area, from Orange to Albemarle.

 Easements by PEC, VOF, the Virginia Department of Forestry, through localities’ purchase of development rights programs, and other land trusts totaled more than 9,500 acres in the Piedmont. That included 2,116 acres in Fauquier County and 1,425 acres in Orange County.

“People have a lot of motivations” for considering conservation easements, said Heather Richards, PEC’s vice president for conservation and rural programs.

 Three reasons, she says, get to the heart of why people do it: “They love their land; they love their land; they love their land.”

 Fauquier, Richards says, has been racking up thousands of acres in easements, much of it farm land.

 More specifically, “Large farms in large clusters,” she said,  which preserves prime agricultural areas, along with large chunks of open space for wildlife.

 Suburban encroachment is another reason conservation easements are on the rise: “Landowners are seeing the inexorable march outward from urban areas, and saying, ‘This is something I can do now,’” Richards said.

 Closer to more-developed areas such as Fredericksburg, Prince William and even Fairfax County, “Easements are being done on smaller properties,” Richards said.

 Preservation efforts go beyond open space and farm land.  The Civil War Trust and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, for example, have teamed up to complete conservation easements on significant battlefield-related tracts here that are  not managed by the National Park Service.

 Landowners have incentives beyond a desire to be good stewards.

 Along with a federal income tax deduction, Virginia residents enjoy one of the nation’s most generous incentives, the Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credit.

 It allows an income tax credit for 40 percent of the value of donated land or conservation easements. Taxpayers may write off up to $100,000 in income for the first year, and 10 years after that, and unused tax credits can be sold.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

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