Conservation in Virginia's Piedmont

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:06/28/2013 Updated:07/02/2013

Sitting on the edge of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area, the counties of northern Virginia are amongst the fastest growing in the nation. This may seem like an inhospitable place for a conservation group, but the Piedmont Environmental Council, or PEC for short, is up to the task.

Since 1972, PEC, a community-based environmental group and certified land trust, has been working in the Piedmont region of Virginia to strengthen rural communities and preserve the natural resources and historic places that surround them. As Vice President Doug Larson explains, forty years ago PEC’s founders were “prescient in that they knew they wanted to protect land…but they took a much more comprehensive approach in recognizing that sitting on the edge of a major metropolitan area there would be other kinds of land use challenges.”

PEC covers nine counties in Virginia, from Clarke and Loudoun on the Potomac River in the Washington Metropolitan area down the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. In 2000, the population of Loudoun County was estimated to be 169,599, and by 2010 it was home to 325,405 people. That 84 percent increase made it the fourth fastest-growing county in America during that decade.

That kind of development pressure on an area which was traditionally a small farming community “makes the challenge of protecting the land even more daunting,” says Larson.

Fortunately, there is a strong conservation ethic amongst these rural communities, which PEC fosters with education and outreach. That is probably the most important aspect of their work; educating people about conservation, the development pressures they face, and what they can do to preserve the health of their communities and way of life.

Larson explains that helping farmers succeed and educating people about the importance of local farms is now one of PEC’s top priorities. “As we work with farmers to protect their land, we have also recognized that one of the ways to ultimately protect farm land is to make it more viable and more profitable for farmers,” because if farmers are doing well they will be less likely to sell their land for development.

To achieve that goal, PEC has created a successful rural agricultural outreach program that sends out a comprehensive guide to 250,000 households, which collectively list over 600 vendors of local produce. It also provides the contact information and hours of operation for each vendor to facilitate the connection between farmer and consumer.

Other preservation priorities for PEC are scenic view sheds, Civil War battlefields, which Virginia is uniquely rich in, and areas of ecological importance, especially watersheds, which also provide drinking water for much of the state. As an example of the latter, in March PEC created their first easement in Fauquier County; a 47 acre property at the headwaters of Cedar Run – a major drinking supply for northern Virginia.

Two of the largest players in preserving land in Virginia are the Land Preservation Tax Credit, which incentivizes the creation of conservation easements, and the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which actually holds the easements – over 675,000 acres of them.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) is a quasi-state agency that is the largest easement holder in the country. While PEC is itself a land trust and easement holder, the group has found it advantageous to partner with VOF by reaching out to, and educating, landowners who express interest in donating an easement and “walk them to the door of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and hand them off to the VOF staff, who then prepare the actual easement documentation and ultimately accept the easement,” say Larson. That way, easements have the backing of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This can be an important distinction in legal matters, as “the attorney general of the commonwealth is really the one standing behind the easement, rather than a private land trust.”

Heather Richards, PEC’s Vice President of Conservation and Rural Programs, adds: “In other cases, VOF will send us easements and say; ‘We’re not going to get to this easement this year, but this landowner wants to get this done. Can PEC do it?’” This back-and-forth partnership ensures that resources are allocated in a way that “gets the most and best conservation done that we can.”   

The Land Preservation Tax Credit offers landowners who donate conservation easements a tax credit for 40 percent of the easement’s value. There is a cap of $100,000 per year, although any excess can be rolled over to following years and the tax credit is also transferable in a well-established market. “It’s an incredibly good program that is well utilized by the state…and has been twice now found to be efficient and effective at achieving its goal of protecting the commonwealth,” says Richards.

However, while the tax credit program has been effective at incentivizing private land conservation, it is not without its shortcomings. Richards explains that; “It’s not always good for low income landowners who still can’t afford to donate an easement.” Nor is it the most effective way to preserve parkland, trails or other purchases of land for public access, which is why PEC is working to enhance other conservation programs to fill in the gaps.

Receiving $100 million per year, the tax credit program is also expensive and, as a result, it is receiving increased pressure from politicians in tight fiscal times. As such, advocating for the continued health of the program, which is one of the best ways to support private land conservation, has become an imperative in the last few years.

While legislators from certain regions of commonwealth, such as the Piedmont, are knowledgeable about the importance of conservation in their districts, Virginia is a big state, and people’s interests can vary widely by region. To help bridge the gap, PEC is creating a book – to be published this fall – with examples of successful conservation programs in all 100 districts to “show the public all of the different kinds of land conservation in Virginia, and all of the different ways we achieve it,” and how those easements contribute to the public benefit, says Richards.

It is easy for people, even politicians, to forget that the three largest drivers of Virginia’s economy are still agriculture, forestry and tourism; all of which are dependent on healthy open space and natural resources.

Unfortunately, there are two threats to land preservation and rural communities looming on the horizon – the proposed Outer Beltway in the Washington D.C. area that sample imagegoes from Prince William to Loughton, and Western Bypass around Charlottesville.

The billion-dollar Outer Beltway project, rather than addressing the needs of existing communities for an east-west corridor to alleviate congestion, would create another north-south highway – mostly to serve prospective development. In addition to opening up large areas of undeveloped land, it would cut a large swath through Manassas Battlefield Park.

The Western Bypass around Charlottesville will be equally inept at solving commuters’ problems, and cost more than the plan – Business 29 – that was created by the community. There has been much community opposition to the proposal, along with objections from government agencies. Both the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have questioned the effectiveness of the project, and even the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for building the bypass, has shown in prior studies that the project wouldn’t relieve congestion on 29 North.

In part thanks to PEC and other concerned organizations, there is stiff community opposition to both projects. Follow the above links to learn more and send an email to your state and federal representatives.

PEC continues to be an invaluable asset to the communities it serves and show us that conservation is not one-dimensional. It is about protecting land, the resources it provides, and the communities who depend on those resources.

If you’re in the area, be sure not to miss PEC’s Meet the Farmer Dinner at Historic Long Branch in Millwood. The menu will include barbecue beef, pork and chicken, assorted salads, cornbread, cobblers, and beer and wine from over 20 local farmers. There will also be live bluegrass music, square dancing, presentations by local food experts, and farm and historic house tours. Tickets will be $30 per adult and $15 per child at the gate. More info here.
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All Photos Courtesy of the Piedmont Environmental Council

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