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Stafford program helping preserve rural land

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More than 200 acres have been preserved in Stafford County thanks to a program dedicated to conserving the rural and open spaces in the county.

The purchase of development rights program gives landowners an alternative to selling their land to developers as the pressure from development and higher land values has increased.

“If you ask a lot of people why they come to Stafford County, they come for the rural atmosphere. But if people keep moving into Stafford and building subdivisions, there won’t be a rural atmosphere,” Gail Clark, a member of the PDR committee, said.

In the past five years, the number of farms in Stafford has decreased by more than 4,000 acres. An April 2014 report on the PDR program stated that two years before, there were 215 farms in Stafford totaling 15,260 acres. But in 2007, the report noted, there were 233 farms totaling 19,816 acres.

The average size of farms decreased from 85 acres to 71 acres, the report added.

The report used 2012 numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Services.

Since 2009 when the PDR program was formed, a total of 265 acres have been protected from development through the program.

“PDR is a common-sense solution to the problem of our rapid loss of our forests and farms. And it respects property rights at the same time and gives someone value for what they are giving up,” Supervisor Paul Milde, who helped create the program, said.

PDR gives eligible landowners a financial incentive to preserve their property by paying landowners to retire their development rights and place a conservation easement on their property. The landowner remains the owner and can still live on the property.

Since 2009, a total of 52 development rights have been retired.

“We realized it would be slow-going initially, eventually picking up momentum. Any properties that we removed from development was a success for us. The practical side is that every acre that we take out of development, that is less infrastructure that is needed by the county,” Martin McClevey, a PDR committee member, said.

The county currently pays $25,000 per development right, which is equivalent to a buildable lot that a tract of land can yield. The six-member PDR committee establishes the methodology for determining a development right and how much the county will pay for each right.

With the economy beginning to recover from the recession, McClevey said it may be time to take another look at how much the county pays for development rights.

Kathy Baker, assistant director of Planning and Zoning and PDR program administrator, said that about 15 other localities in the state have PDR programs.

PDR is currently supported by rollback tax excess and matching state funds from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Rollback taxes are levied when landowners decide to allow higher-intensity uses on their property after they previously were in the county’s land-use program. That program allows for agricultural, horticultural and forest land to be assessed at use value rather than market value. That translates to lower taxes for the landowners.

But when owners decide to change the use on their property, they have to pay the taxes that they would have paid if they hadn’t been in land-use program for that year and the previous five years.

The county budgets a certain amount of rollback tax revenue each year. Every dollar that goes over that budgeted amount is the rollback tax excess funding that feeds the PDR program.

So far, the county has allocated about $825,000 to the PDR program, while the state has given $675,000.

Some committee members said that the rollback tax funding is a double-edged sword. Every time the program gets funding, it means that some land in the land-use program has been lost.

At the same time, committee members said, the rollback tax funding means that the taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill for the program because only the landowner or the developer purchasing the property will pay the rollback taxes.

“To me, it makes perfect sense to use rollback taxes. We can’t stop by-right development. This way, at the same time that we are developing a piece of property, we are saving a piece of property somewhere else,” Milde said.

By-right development is development that doesn’t require a rezoning or approvals from the county.

Both Clark and Baker said the program could reduce sprawl in the county. Clark said that development ends up costing the county more to provide the needed services, but for every dollar of land in the land-use program, the county uses less than a dollar in services.

“If we can keep land out of development forever, it is ultimately a net gain for the taxpayer,” Clark said. “We have been doing very well with the funds that we have. But it is a drop in the bucket. As a farm owner in Stafford County, I would really like to save more active farmland.”

Vanessa Remmers: 540/735-1975


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