On Track for 400,000 Acres Conserved

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine isn’t waiting for others to act in order to meet his goal of conserving 400,000 acres of open space in the Commonwealth by the end of his four-year term. Meeting with local leaders to celebrate the easement of 4,000 acres along the Rappahannock River recently, he told the following story, according to the Free Lance-Star:

Instead of waiting for landowners to start talking to state agencies about using easements and other tools to protect their land, Kaine said state officials — and sometimes the governor himself–are now trying to start those talks.

He told a story about canoeing on the James River in Botetourt County last July 3 and taking out at a farm. Kaine asked the landowner if the farm was under conservation easement. It wasn’t, but the owner seemed interested. So Kaine had Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant call him on July 4, and the 700-acre property is now preserved forever under a conservation easement.

In 2006, Kaine’s first term, 95,000 acres of Virginia land were preserved — about double the rate before then. But Kaine said he would have to step up his efforts to meet his goal. State officials are going after big chunks of land — 10,000-20,000 acres per shot. As a result, the Governor has been talking to paper companies with huge holdings of forest land.

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17 responses to “On Track for 400,000 Acres Conserved”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    It’s not the number of acres but WHERE they are and what their significance is (or is not).

    In the Rappahannock River’s case – these are Riparian Buffer acres that run along both banks – and have functioned to preserve the shoreline in a relatively natural state rather than development.

    There is a irony as the land was purchased originally by VEPCO to build a huge dam that would drown more than 25 miles of river but they abandoned the idea after the Army Corp attempted to build the multi-purpose dam (that would have included hydro)… and then abandoned the idea after serious local opposition surfaced.

    Then VDOT wanted to build an interstate road through some of the most remote parts of the river essentially to serve commuters and to provide an alternative I-95 mainline.

    The easement was pretty much Fredericksuburgs idea since they owned the land – and only had lukewarm support from some upstream counties – and opposition from other counties.

    I think Kaine is on the right track statewide but we need a State vision for preserving significant land (not just any land) – and for connecting some of this land to have a statewide bike/hike trail network

    .. AND I would like to see some of the Conservative Republican folks walk-the-walk.. and not stand on the sidelines while the Dems and Kaine do yeoman service.

    Do you think the Republicans who run of office this fall .. and perhaps the ones that go after the Gov… after Kaine .. will have a vision of promoting Conservation?

    Now .. THAT would be a KICK in the pants.. wouldn’t it? 🙂

  2. Possibly Inconvenient Truth Avatar
    Possibly Inconvenient Truth

    Conservation easements result in higher property taxes for the rest of us.

    Why is that a good thing? Are we really getting our money’s worth?

    Maybe it would be a lot more cost effective and beneficial to the planet to buy rainforest using the money that is otherwise lost in tax subsidies.

    There is far more biodiversity to be preserved in the Amazon than along the Rappahannock.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    higher taxes.. is it worth it?

    I think it’s an honest question especially with respect to private land – never accessible to the public – being put into conservation easements.

    But it is interesting because the argument is that it’s cheaper to use taxes to keep land undeveloped that it is to let land be developed because then even more taxes are required for the infrastructure and services.

    So – if you’re really looking out for the taxpayer – wouldn’ it make more sense to not let land be developed because it costs more in taxes to service it than if it were set aside in a conservation easement?

  4. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Thank you Larry.

    Selective use of facts clouds the issue. The big picture is not
    “Conservation easements result in higher property taxes for the rest of us.”

    The big picture is “Cost of Services is Dependent on Density.”

    EMR calls this the 10X Rule.

    Conservation easements are a tool for encouraging development in the “sweet spot” of lower taxes.

    The main tension on this blog is between posts encouraging low taxes and efficient government and those who favor Laissez-faire economic theory which leads to higher taxes on individuals who are not wealthy.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “Easements cause higher taxes for the rest of us.”

    Depends on who you believe.

    Conservation easements may actually result in higher taxes for the conservation easement owneers as well as the rest of us. This is because structures and other infrastructure are still charged at the regular rate. A farm with extensive dairy, horse, or wine facilities may still pay more, despite an easement on the remainder, because of large countywide easements. And the situation may get worse in the future if more and more easements are installed while a housing shortage drives prices up.


    You can only really make the argument that easements cause higher taxes for the rest of us if you are willing to concede that those properties might actually be developed. A property not under easement but used at a low impact usage such as forestry or farming is still taxed at a low rate.

    You can tax them at the higher rate that reflects their “true value” only if you are willing to let that true value exist.

    But if that is the case, then you are essentially m,aking the argument that development pays. Even so, those that promote easements do so on the basis that they keep taxes low, because the taxes on farms and easement land pays more than it costs.

    In other words, it keeps taxes low for everyone except those with open space. This is hardly what you could call an incentive to keep open space, despite how it is presented and marketed.

    And, if it is true that open space keeps taxes low, it is also true that it keeps taxes low by keeping values low, in other words by reducing wealth (of a certain kind).

    Thirty or fifty years ago, Fauquier County and Loudoun County were pretty much equivalent. Today, Loudoun County residents have a higher per capita net worth and a higher per capita income. I’m not claiming that one is better than the other. In fact, I prefer the Fauquier approach.

    Just don’t try to tell me that it is free, or even low cost.

    Naturally, these arguments don’t apply to large forest lands with little infrastructure, and certainly the conservation of the Rappahannock basin was a fortuitous result of failed plans.

    On the other hand, had it been dammed, there would have been a lot more shoreline, and then you would have a reason to go after all of that with riparian easements.

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I have related the story of a recent Science channel program that investigates the global use of market driven forces to promote conservation. All of the examples shown amounted to finding ways to extract more money from the urban areas in order to promote and fund conservation efforts. These efforts provide valuable services and amenities to the urban areas, without which urban areas are not sustainable.

    Such an argument suggests that EMR’s 10x rule may be misguided at best: aside from being unproven and probably overstated. Assume he is right, and far suburban and rural areas are subsidized. Following the Science channel argument, we should have more of this, not less, because it allows people to own, maintain and care for large tracts that they could not otherwise afford.

    Conversely, if we continue to subsidize the urban areas with amenities such as dog parks, bike trails, subsidized rents, and Metro, how can we assume that the money doesn’t come (partly) out of conservation efforts? The science channel show argues that it is the urban areas which should be paying more of their own true costs.

    It seems to me that the question isn’t whether conservation costs us money: clearly it does. but just like any other option or priority we need to assess whether we are getting our moneys worth, and who is paying for what benefits. This sentiment is reflected in Larry’s comment about easements on private land for private benefit.

    Furthermore, we need to reassess the situation periodically. At some point, we may find that saving land forever is a mistake. We save money so we can spend it in the future, or else because the current stream of benefits is worth more to us than the other options. We attempt to save time on task A so we can spend more on pleasure B, later.

    Or, assume EMR’s 10x rule is someday enforced. He argues that this would make the areas so expensive that it would revert to extensive uses. More likely, it would result in people demanding that their property be allowed to be developed at a level that is reflected by the taxes they are paying. They are unlikely to walk awayand abandon their property. If he is right, and the value drops substantially, so that extensive uses are once again profitable, then we still have a problem. A drop of that magnitude would mean that a landowner (or previous landowner) would take such a huge loss that it might take fifty years of (now profitable, but only by a fact of extortion) farming or other extensive use to cover the losses.

    Whether you look at this on an individual basis or averaged on a societal basis, its hard to see where the greater good lies, unless you put the proper price on conservation, and charge accordingly. If that’s the case, who are you going to send the bill to? Can’t very well send it to the farmers and foresters: under this scenario they are already paying 10x.

    Yes, conservation does cost us money. But, if it is worth it, or even more if it is critical, then what’s the problem?

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, The only way to find out who is subsidizing who (urban vs. rural vs. suburban), and by how much, is to systematically proceed service by service, utility by utility, infrastructure by infrastructure, and making the charges location-variable neutral. If you can make a case for charging urban dwellers for benefits provided by the countryside, then go ahead. Throw them into the mix.

    But I don’t hear you doing that. Maybe I perceive your comments wrongly, but you seem content to throw everything into a big cross-subsidizing mix, declare that we don’t have enough data to justify doing anything differently, and essentially support the status quo.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “…seem content to throw everything into a big cross-subsidizing mix, declare that we don’t have enough data to justify doing anything differently, and essentially support the status quo.”

    You probably right, although I wouldn’t say that I’m content with it.

    But, we have people on both sides of seemingly every issue, each claiming that the guy behind the tree is getting a bargain, isn’t paying what he should, or is committing acts offensive to us.

    Absent enough data to justify doing anything differently, what we are stuck with is what results from whatever special interest screams the loudest, pays the most, and makes the most popular (not to say correct) arguments.

    My main position is that as soon as we say (and I do it, too) that “the only way is”, then we are most probably wrong. The issues are far more nuanced than that, and the truth is something that is unlikely to be found as long as we continue to suffer from our national and local bipolar ideology disorder.

    Bad as it is, and inefficient as it is, if we flip a coin enough times, we will eventually discover that the two sides are roughly equal. We got to this status quo by flipping the coin for two hundred years. Before I sign up for Fundamental Change, I’d like to have at least some evidence that it will result in a better status quo.

  9. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Ray Hyde misses the mark when he says

    “Such an argument suggests that EMR’s 10x rule may be misguided at best: aside from being unproven and probably overstated. Assume he is right, and far suburban and rural areas are subsidized. Following the Science channel argument, we should have more of this, not less, because it allows people to own, maintain and care for large tracts that they could not otherwise afford.”

    The 10x rule applies, not to areas, but to dwelling units.

    One way to look at the problem is to look at where income is created. Credit the income to the job place, not the residence. Farms and forests create income. Commuters create income at their job place. The 10x rule is a quick calculation of the expense of low density rural development for commuters.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    well, I dunno if this proves anything or not:

    Fauquier County Real Estate
    $0.64.5 per $100 (includes
    $0.035 Fire & Rescue Levy
    $0.01 Conservation Easement Fund)

    Fairfax County $.89 per $100

    Loudoun County $0.96 per $100

    so a question… what would cause Fauquier County’s tax rate to go up?

    and what would happen if Fauquier rezoned much of the county for residential development and then paid landowners to not develop their property?

    Would their tax rate stay low?

    would the taxes on undeveloped properties stay low?

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I understand it applies to dwelling units. My remarks stand.

    As for farms creating income, lets get real. According to the farm census, every farm in Fauquier, Loudoun, and Warren county has lost money (on a statistical basis) for the last nine years. Some farms that generate posotive cash flow do it on the basis of commodity subsidies. There are, naturally, exceptions, and some organizations have niche markets. Or, if you consider operating costs only, you can change the picture somewhat.

    Now, if you want to say that farms generate a lot of support to the local economy, that’s different, but much of that support flows through to the local economy through the farm, but comes from off farm income. In my case recent examples include $600 in tire repairs, $750 in parts, $800 in repair services, $1200 in hired labor, $800 in fuel, $200 for twine, etc. etc. And that’s a weekend farm. The farm creates a lot of income, just not for me, and (statistically) not for most farms.

    Interestingly, if you are in easement, you can then stop farming and avoid all that expense.

    Just yesterday a neighbor and I were discussing a large and apparently well run operation nearby. He is acquainted with the owner, and he dismissed the operation as “a write off business”. Write off or not, it is still a large and well run operation, and beautiful to boot. I don’t have a problem with the write off, even if it is “costing us money”.

    The South Carolina Dept of Agriculture has performed a study that says when land is $4000 an acre, only the very best farmers can operate at a profit. At $7000 they would be better off to sell and invest in government bonds.

    If EMR’s argument results in prices less than $4000 an acre, then you can farm profitably. That isn’t the same as saying that you couldn’t still commute to work and make something like three times as much. We might be able to use a lot more land, growing ethanol, but otherwise, more extensive land use will result in lower prices and less profit.

    IF the 10x rule for supplying services applies to commuters, then it must apply to other residences as well. If you drive the commuters out, supplying services to the remainder will cost even more, and I can’t see setting up separate tax (and private service) structures.

    Bottom line: I think the blanket comment that conservation easements cause higher taxes for the rest of us is partly wrong. I also think the blanket statement that farms create income is partly wrong.

    I don’t have any problem with crediting the income to the job source and not the residence. But if we do that, then lets credit the congestion to the job source and not the residence, as well. And let’s at least credit income that is real.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    It doesn’t matter if the rate goes up, it matters if the people are better or worse off, and taxes are only part of that.

    What causes the rate to go up is if the rate of expenditures goes up faster than the valuations go up.

    Suppose you freeze all development. Then there is no reason for expenditures to go up, other than new or better requirements like “no child left behind” and inflation. There is also no way to increase valuation other than natural increase due to demand.

    It only takes a little excess demand to increase valuations a lot. Presumably, the tax rate would go down. But we know that administrators like to build empires, and there will be some new requirements, and some inflation. History suggests the doolar amount of tax paid will not go down, even if the rate does.

    But, if valuations go up a lot, eventually some people will decide they can’t afford them anymore – even with lower taxes. They will want to cash out, or cash out partly, and that means subdivide.

    But we have already frozen development. So to alleviate the pain of those that want out, we will pay them not to subdivide, and we will raise taxes to do it. Everybody gets what they want and presumably everyone is better off, which as I said, is the point.

    At least we froze development, and we’ve got conservation. How much did that cost us again?

    And that’s just this year. Next year there is more demand and more people want to cash out, and there is more new requirements and services cost more. There is more imbalance.

    Times change. If more people want to cash out than conserve the fewer conservationists have to pay more to more people to get what they want. The nonconservationists have to pay more too, but they at least get their own money back in land payments.

    If we were smart, if we understood about discount rates and time value of money, then we could have bought the land we wanted to preserve. (It is just another way of paying people not to develop after all.)

    Then we could have said, its our land we can do what we want with it, including nothing. But, we would have had to raise the taxes to buy the land.

    The question remains as to whether we would be better off.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The fact remains that if no development takes place – all things being equal with regard to NCLB, inflation, etc, that there are not additional costs that have to be borne by taxpayers.

    There is no need for increased taxes for schools, water supply, roads, etc.

    I’m not advocating any of this but instead pointing out that much infrastructure and services is publically provisioned – and that must develoment does not result in lower taxes or even neutral taxes.

    Schools and roads and EMS facilities and libraries are financed with bonds – guaranteed by a localities ability to set a tax rate necessary to obtain the revenue needed to pay back those bonds.

    If those bonds had to be obtained by the developer as part of their project – and those costs passed on to the buyers of that development via annual HOA fees, then what would happen to the county tax rate?

    In fact, we do this right now with proffers – up front payments for schools – and the costs of which – included in the mortgage payments of those who bought homes.

    Up until now, roads were out of this equation but I do note that Prince William is proposing on the order of 30K per home for roads – on top of the other proffers.

    So – we are indeed – moving to a situation where new home buyers will be paying more for the infrastructure and services ( not all but much more than before).

    and this leads to a final observation…

    which is.. if new development did not result in tax increases or crowded schools and roads – why would it be opposed?

    For those folks who really are interested in less restrictive land-development policies – wouldn’t this approach truly lead to less restrictions?

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I don’t agree that if no development takes place that there will not be additional costs that have to be borne by the taxpayer, however those costs may not come in the form of taxes.

    If the bonds are fully obtained by the developer and passed on via HOA fees, including roads in the case of PW, then none of the benefits of this new construction and growth devolve to the previous residents. The new residents, meanwhile, will also now pick up part of the costs of previous borrowing.

    I don’t take issue with any of what you say, but I also believe that your line of argument goes too far: that it allows for no benefits that might accrue to existing owners. If the existing owners had already fully paid for all their infrastructure, and fully funded all the maintenance that might be required in the future, with no allowance for economies of scale, then maybe it is a little different. But, as it stands, the new residents of PW will pay 30K apiece for new roads, and existing residents will use those roads for free. Businesses will use the new roads to reach new customers, for free.

    I think that somewhere along the line we are undervaluing the benefits existing residents get or overcharging new residents for what they get.

    I also believe that even if you could create a perfect scenario, where growth did not mean new taxes, crowding, and congestion; where new costs were fairly allocated, that existing owners would still oppose it out of greed and selfishness: the same attributes they accuse developers of.

    I don’t see any difference between wanting to profit from development by not paying full costs, and wanting to profit from preventing development by not paying full costs.

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    How about the “rights” of the existing landowners whose taxes are being taken from them to be spent on new roads for new folks – roads that would not be needed if the new folks were not moving in?

    Don’t the existing landowners have “rights” to not have their taxes raised to buy infrastructure for others?

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    How about the “rights” of the existing landowners whose taxes are being taken from them to be spent on new roads for new folks that would not be needed if it were not for new folks moving in?

    Why do existing residents not havt to pay for new folks TVs, garages, water/sewer but they do have to pay for roads?

    How about new folks only being able to drive on roads that they paid for – and that would be it?

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    sorry about the previous double-post – and I perhaps made an assertion (with respect to who should pay for roads) that was unsubstantiated – which I address below:

    the point of the remark was – that our current methods of financing roads is not only dysfunctional but, more important, it’s not sustainable.

    I’ll go into the problems but at the start – I’ll ask….

    What would be a sustainable model that might “work” better than what we have right now?

    The one I think that does “work” is the standard municipal water/sewer model.

    First – new capacity is usually available when it is needed. Most systems can accommodate predictable levels of new connections and this is not an accident – it is an explicit part of the financial model AND multi-year infrastructure expansion (capital) planning.

    Second – once a customer is connected to the water/sewer network – acceptable, even excellent levels of service are provided – not intermittently – but usually 24/7 despite the fact that there can and are tremendous dynamic changes in system demands.

    Those dynamics are virtually transparent to most users as good service is predictable and seamless.

    Contrast this to our road network in which level of service deficits such as congestion and gridlock are, the daily vocabulary.

    The reason the water/sewer system “works” is because of it’s SUSTAINABLE financial model and this is no accident – it has to be if acceptable levels of service were the goal to start with.

    In order to accomplish the goal two critical things have to happen:

    1. – first – provisions that adequate revenues are generated for system expansions. We call this a “hook up” or “availability” fee and it is several thousands of dollars and at this point – there is no equivalent road availability fee.

    The fee is exactly what it says. It costs the customer to have water/sewer made “available”.

    2. – second – the financial assures that the operational costs are mitigated by essentially penalizing useage that is higher than average/normal.

    This is an explicit strategy to keep from having to build very expensive infrastructure that will only be used during peak periods.

    It’s important to note that useage is not denied but the customer does pay for higher useage levels.

    In these 2 critical ways – our road financial model is fatally flawed.

    With roads there is no “hook-up” or “availability” fee from which to produce up-front revenue for adding capacity and expansion.

    These needs, instead, have to be met by user fees – the fuel tax – which is also expected to pay for maintenance.

    What would happen to the water/sewer financial model if it also did not collect hook-up fees but relied on monthly useage fees for revenues?

    I would posit that if we moved the road financial model to emulate the water/sewer financial model that it would be more sustainable but even more important is that we need to focus on levels of service for roads just as we do for water/sewer.

    We need to charge the equivalent of “hook-up” fees to support system expansion (subdivision and subdivision-serving arterial roads)

    and we need to charge for useage that penalizes higher than normal useage (congestion pricing) to moderate the need for expensive infrastructure just for high useage periods.

    So this is why I support road fees on new homes the same way that we have equivalent fees for water/sewer.

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