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More than 6K acres of Central Virginia land placed in conservation easements last year

Heated debates over housing projects, solar farms, data centers and other developments are raging in boardrooms and town halls across Virginia. While localities face major decisions between what to build and where, other groups are working to preserve Virginia land from ever being considered for development.

According to its own mission statement, the Piedmont Environmental Council is focused on preserving the region’s natural integrity and resources for public benefit as well as ensuring historic, scenic and environmental sustainability. The primary tool the Warrenton-based nonprofit organization wields to carry out its mission is conservation easements, a voluntary agreement between a landowner and land conservation organization designed to protect any agricultural or historical resources, scenic open space, or wildlife habitat that may exist on a property.

Last year, the council placed 6,315 acres of land into conservation easements spanning the nine counties within its service area. This figure brings the total number of preserved acreage to 446,096 in the counties of Albemarle, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock.

“It’s an incremental process,” Kim Biasiolli, who represents Albemarle and Greene on the council, told The Daily Progress. “Each year, we continue to work toward these goals, and over time we’re having a cumulative impact on protecting biodiversity and climate resiliency.”

Every acre matters to the council, which has set an ambitious goal of placing another 100,000 acres of land within its coverage area into conservation easements by 2030. Long term, the group aspires to increase that figure to 1 million acres.

The agreements are not simply to prevent construction on farmland and other scenic places, but also to protect some of the natural resources located on the property. This was the case for the 586-acre River Run Farm in Albemarle County that was placed in an easement last year by the Albemarle County Easement Authority in partnership with the Piedmont Environmental Council.

River Run Farm, located near Esmont just south of Charlottesville, is flush with several natural and historic features the county had an interest in protecting, such as “high value agricultural and forestal lands” identified as conservation priorities by the commonwealth and a nationally registered historic site, a late-nineteenth-century horse stable designed by Richmond architect D. Wiley Anderson for New Orleans sugar and banking magnate Harry Douglas Forsyth that is considered one of the largest and most elaborate horse stables in Virginia.

Facts & figuresIn total, conservation easements in Albemarle, Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties have protected roughly: ■ 10,800.6 acres of wetlands. ■ 210,884.3 acres of forests. ■ 32,010.1 acres of battlefields. ■ 140,054.5 acres in historic districts. ■ 1,848.6 miles of streams. ■ 132,896.6 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail. ■ 211,930.9 acres of prime farmland soils. ■ 27,930.1 acres adjacent to scenic rivers. ■ And 118,253 acres along scenic byways. In Albemarle County, conservation easements in 2023 protected roughly: ■ 5.5 acres of wetlands. ■ 1,514 acres of forests. ■ 871.8 acres in historic districts. ■ 7.1 miles of streams. ■ 98.3 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail. ■ 440.3 acres of prime farmland soils. ■ And 123.1 acres along scenic highways. In Madison County, conservation easements in 2023 protected roughly: ■ 1.8 acre of wetlands. ■ 101.8 acres of forests. ■ 0.7 miles of streams. ■ 2 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail. ■ And 28.9 acres of prime farmland soils. In Orange County, conservation easements in 2023 protected roughly: ■ 2.2 acres of wetlands. ■ 153.7 acres of forests. ■ 107.4 acres of battlefields. ■ 0.4 mile of streams. ■ 41.1 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail. ■ And 149.4 acres of prime farmland soils.

Most importantly, River Run Farm is home to 15,000 feet of streams that include the headwaters of Totier Creek that serves as the town of Scottsville’s main water supply.

“Every conservation easement is crafted to demonstrate the public benefit of protecting land and resources, in keeping with the diverse perspectives and motivations of the landowner making the easement donation,” said Piedmont Environmental Council President Chris Miller in a statement. “And, by caring about the people and places of this region, we’re able to build a collective mosaic of conserved lands that results in cleaner waters, greater biodiversity, and increased public access to nature.”

The council is not the only actor involved in conservation easements. Landowners play a critical role in the process, as an easement is a voluntary arrangement where the individual chooses to donate their property and enter into an easement either with a private land trust or a governmental conservation agency. Landowners are responsible for handling the upfront costs associated with drawing up a conservation easement, including appraisals and attorney fees.

In order to reduce some of these financial barriers, the Piedmont Environmental Council and municipalities often offer grants or other assistance to offset the costs.

“Easements should not be out of reach for the ordinary landowner,” said Biasiolli. “It’s meant for all landowners, so that even smaller landowners can participate and make a collective impact by protecting land.”

Though there may be a price tag attached in the beginning, the tax benefits that accompany conservation easements can sweeten the deal for landowners. As the easement process is categorized as a donation, property owners can hire an appraiser and then substantiate the established value of the land with the Internal Revenue Service and Virginia Department of Taxation.

In Virginia, property locked into a conservation easement is also eligible for the Land Preservation Tax Credit that is equal to 40% of the value of their donation.

“These tax credits can be used to directly pay the landowner’s Virginia income tax liability, and as a result, each $1 of credit is actually worth $1 to the landowner,” according to the Piedmont Environmental Council website.

In addition to these benefits, the website says that conservation easement donors qualify for reductions to their federal tax income, estate taxes, property taxes and can exclude “up to 40% of the post-easement value of land from the taxable estate.”

Given these extensive financial incentives, not all who participate in conservation easements do so with pure intentions about saving wildlife and endangered plant species.

There’s been a history of some landowners acquiring conservation easements less focused on preserving green fields and more on greenbacks. Conserved land manipulated by private landowners to access tax breaks for their personal gain has been dubbed “abusive tax shelters.”

“The IRS has seen abuses of this tax provision that compromise the policy Congress intended to promote,” reads a page dedicated to conservation easements on the federal agency’s website. “We have seen taxpayers, often encouraged by promoters and armed with questionable appraisals, take inappropriately large deductions for easements. In some cases, taxpayers claim deductions when they are not entitled to any deduction at all.”

One prominent businessman who has tapped into this tax loophole is former President Donald Trump. Though money rarely seems to be a cause of concern for the real estate mogul, Trump took a $39 million deduction on his private golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, in 2005. Nine years later, he acquired another conservation easement on his 11.5-acre driving range in Los Angeles. With five conservation easements in his portfolio, Trump has managed to secure over $100 million in tax write-offs using the practice.

In order to combat these nefarious donations while maintaining this critical method of protecting nature, Congress and the IRS have proposed several pieces of legislation in recent years that would require taxpayers associated with a conservation easement to file special disclosures with the IRS when using tax incentives. Republican Montana Sen. Steve Daines has proposed a bipartisan bill that would place limits on the size of tax deductions granted to landowners involved in conservation easements.

Though these outliers in the conservation easement realm exist, Biasiolli said the chief intention of the agreements — and financial incentives that come along with them — are to promote environmental sustainability and protect natural resources for the public now and in the years to come.

“There’s always a greater financial benefit for landowners to developing it,” she said. “Tax benefits are there to encourage conservation and protection of working farmland, natural habitats and things that support the local economy.”

This is especially true for counties that primarily rely on historical tourism to support their economy, such as Albemarle County.

In 2023, Albemarle added 11 easements to its portfolio bringing the total of protected acreage in the county to 2,065, a quarter of which was River Run Farm. The Piedmont Environmental Council reported that these easements protected over 5 acres of wetlands, 1,000 acres of forests and 98 acres within the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail.

Culpeper and Orange counties also closed three easements last year, while Madison County had one easement of 126 acres. Over 100 acres of battlefields were protected in Orange County, and over 250 acres of “prime farmland soils” were located in conserved land among the three counties.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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