No Time to Lose

by Nikki Rovner and Mary Heinricht

Development is rapidly consuming Virginia’s farmland and forests. The Commonwealth needs to invest more in preservation of open space.

“It shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands and waters from pollution, impairment or destruction for the benefit, enjoyment and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”

–Article XI, Constitution of Virginia

Experts predict that if current trends continue, over the next 25 years Virginia will develop an area equal to that developed since the Commonwealth was settled by Europeans. The rate of loss is accelerating and is now more than two times faster than our population growth. Vitally important resources like prime farmlands are being lost at the greatest rate, with forestland loss close behind. More.


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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Response to “No Time to Lose”

    Development is rapidly consuming Virginia’s farmland and forests. The Commonwealth needs to invest more in preservation of open space.

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    ““It shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands and waters from pollution, impairment or destruction for the benefit, enjoyment and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”

    –Article XI, Constitution of Virginia “

    I don’t have a problem with public welfare. I have a problem with how the “general welfare” is calculated. If the government protects a watershed that generate 200 acre feet of water a year and the water is valued at $17/acre-foot it’s use value is $3400 per year. As homes that site might be worth $10 million to the owners of the homes and $1.5 million in profit to the seller of the land, not to mention profit to the developers and builders. If the owner of the land that is “protected” is not adequately compensated, how can this protection be said to be to the general welfare.

    “Experts predict that if current trends continue, over the next 25 years Virginia will develop an area equal to that developed since the Commonwealth was settled by Europeans. The rate of loss is accelerating and is now more than two times faster than our population growth. Vitally important resources like prime farmlands are being lost at the greatest rate, with forestland loss close behind.”

    The areas in the state with the most “prime farmland” are the most poverty stricken. “Prime Farmland” is a soils description, not an economic description. Regardless of the value of the soil the farmland is not economic at prices over $10,000/acre. One third of the increase in land use is due to misguided land use restrictions. Over the next 25 years the population growth will be much greater than it has been in most of the time since the area was settled, combined. Forestland is actually increasing due to uneconomic farmland being taken out of production. Farmland is being taken out of production at three times the rate it is being used for construction. Even at today’s building rates home starts are at the lowest value in 25 years, if compared to population growth. Estimates for when a farmland crisis will loom run from 400 to 700 years out.

    “Virginians have said repeatedly in surveys, polls and by voting, that they are willing to invest in the protection of the lands of the Commonwealth. But the Commonwealth has failed to provide dedicated funding to protect our resource lands for future generations.”

    Right, they should put their money where their mouth is. In Massachusetts over half the land in the state is owned by the commonwealth for the enjoyment and use of its citizens. Even Massachusetts, by the way, is only 8% developed.

    “Background”

    “Virginia has excellent programs to facilitate land conservation, including the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation and the Office of Farmland Preservation. Unfortunately, since 2000, very little funding has been allocated to these programs despite an increased desire and need for land conservation efforts. Virginia has agreed to permanently protect 20 percent the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but has made no real progress towards funding this important commitment.”

    These organizations are unwilling to own and maintain the land. Their primary goal is to relieve the landowner of its value and stick him with the expense, maintenance and taxes.
    Permanent protection is a chimera. Since these programs have started efforts have already begun to unravel them, including efforts by Maryland’s governor. These Organizations are non-elected and quasi-governmental. Turning land use decisions over to them amounts to eliminating the right to vote for future stakeholders.

    “Nationally, states provide an average of 60 percent of the funding for purchase of development rights programs, recognizing that many localities do not have the ability to raise local revenues for this purpose. Nine localities in Virginia have adopted purchase of development rights programs (PDR) and many others are examining ways to save their rural areas. Only two of these programs have dedicated funding, three are unfunded and the others rely on annual appropriations.”

    PDR programs are a waste of time and money and they are a rip-off for the farmer. The value of the land is a farmer’s hedge against failure. Taking the value out of the land with a PDR neither helps him, nor guarantees the land will be farmed. Giving him a one time payment does not help him with a continuing stream of losses, except for a short time. The usual policy is to first remove most of the development rights without compensation, and then offer to pay him for the rest. In Fauquier County 85% or more were taken without compensation back in 1980, and the money now being offered for the remainder is far below market value. This puts the county in an untenable ethical position: if the rights are worth buying now, what about the ones taken in 1980?

    Montgomery County offered full market value for years, with the result that 30% of the county is protected. However, now the county has a land shortage and home prices are rocketing out of sight. Easing building restrictions is now being discussed.

    “Virginia also has an innovative land preservation tax credit program. This program encourages private conservation action by allowing taxpayers who make gifts of land or conservation easements to reduce state income liability and transfer unused credits to other taxpayers.”

    If you transfer unused credits to other taxpayers you might get 65% of their value. These benefits are really only of use to wealthy landowners.

    “Recommendations

    Virginia should fully fund its land conservation programs. “

    Amen, and its conservation programs should rely on outright land purchase. If you believe Virginia can’t afford this, then see my first paragraph above. If they can’t afford it, then it is not in the support of the general welfare, by definition. Otherwise look at Oregon and see what is happening there. After thirty years of pioneering land use restrictions the population revolted at the polls.

    “Provide funding to localities with Purchase of Development Rights programs. Virginia’s Agricultural Vitality Program recently released a model to help localities develop programs to protect the land base that is needed for healthy rural economies that rely on agriculture and forestry. “

    There are no healthy rural economies that rely on agriculture and forestry. 95% of farms are supported by off-farm incomes. What really supports farms is good city jobs and the transportation to get there. Farmers are our biggest sprawlers and sprawl is what supports farms, such as they are. Farmland contiguous to a city goes up like the square of the city’s radius. The larger the city the more “farmland” it can support.

    Matching grants to nonprofits, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and localities. The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation leverages private, local and federal investment by paying up to 50 percent of the cost of land conservation projects. A portion of the VLCF’s funds are directed to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to provide for the donation and acquisition of open space easements.

    Easements are a mistake, a rip-off, and they won’t work. Lawsuits are already on the books to remove some easements and more are sure to on the way. Easements are the full employment act for our children’s lawyers. Not only that, but because of land economics selling an easement could mean the farmer takes a double capital gains hit if he sells an easement and later sells the
    farm.

    “Public land acquisition. While occasional funding has been made available through general obligation bonds, Virginia has never provided an adequate revenue stream for natural resources agencies to meet an increasing population’s needs for recreational opportunities. Funding is needed to take advantage of current opportunities to buy land for wildlife management areas, state forests, parks and natural areas. “

    At least here we agree.

    “The land preservation tax credit is also an important tool that should remain part of Virginia’s land conservation toolbox. “

    There is another thing to do. Since most farms are losing money, the agricultural business value of their land is zero or nearly so. This should be reflected in the land use tax which is entirely too high, as low as it is. This is reflected in the often repeated comment that farms pay $3 in tax for every $1 in services. How does this injustice help farmers?

     January 31, 2005

    Response by Ray Hyde, Delaplane, VA Feb 2, 2005

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