Historic & Scenic Landscapes

Many tools are available to preserve rural land, from private land conservation to Purchase of Development Rights programs, land use taxation, zoning provisions and more.


Comprehensive Plans
Conservation Easements
Purchase of Development Rights Programs
Transfer of Development Rights Programs
Agricultural and Forestal Districts
Land Use Taxation
Large-Lot Zoning
Sliding Scale Zoning
Clustering
Phasing
Recognition of Resources


Comprehensive Plans
Local comprehensive plans guide efforts to preserve rural land by identifying agricultural, forestal, historic, scenic and ecological resources that the community wishes to protect.


Conservation Easements

A landowner can protect his or her land forever by donating a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or a non-profit organization that places permanent limits on the future development of the property in order to protect its conservation values. Each easement is unique, depending on the needs of the landowners and the specific features of the property. Because conservation easements provide considerable public benefits, landowners become eligible for state and federal tax incentives when they donate an easement.


Purchase of Development Rights Programs

Localities can proactively support land conservation by establishing a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. Publicly supported PDR programs pay landowners (usually working farmers) to limit the development potential of their land through a conservation easement. Many farmers depend on the occassional sale of house lots--or the eventual sale of the entire farm--to supplement their incomes. PDR programs create a conservation option, allowing farmers to bring in needed income while keeping thier land. Since state and other matching funds are available to leverage local investment and since conserving rural land prevents development-related expenses such as new schools and roads, these programs can save localities more than they cost.


Transfer of Development Rights Programs

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs use a market-based approach to encourage higher density development in growth areas while reducing the development potential of rural areas. Rural areas identified for protection are designated as "sending areas" and growth areas where density is encouraged are designated as "receiving areas." Landowners in the sending areas can sell development rights to developers who plan to build in the receiving areas. Some jurisdictions establish banks for development rights which they purchase from landowners. Developers may go either to landowners directly to ask to purchase development rights or buy them from the bank. But unless a locality decides to establish a bank for TDRs, the transactions do not require public monies.


Agricultural and Forestal Districts

An Agricultural and Forestal district results from a voluntary agreement between one or more landowners and the local governing body to temporarily protect forests and farmland. Landowners agree not to develop their property for a certain period of time, usually eight years. During this period of time, the property will be eligible for land use taxation, if it is not already eligible.


Land Use Taxation

Under land-use taxation, some rural properties are taxed at their land use value instead of their fair market value. This two tier system makes sense for farmers and other rural landowners, since they make few demands for tax-funded services. It also makes sense for all taxpayers, because if high taxes pressure the people who work the land to sell off lots or develop their property, everyone will have to pay more. This is because, on average, residential properties cost localities more than they pay in taxes, while farms, forests, and open space cost less than they pay in taxes.

The state allows localities to offer land use taxation for eligible properties in any of the following categories: agricultural, forestal, horticultural and/or open space. It is important to note that even on properties eligible for land use taxation, houses, farm buildings and other structures are always taxed at their fair market value. When the land changes to a use no longer qualifying for land use assessment, the landowner must pay back the difference between use value tax and the fair market value tax for a certain number of years, depending on the locality.


Large-Lot Zoning

By limiting the number of houses that can be built in rural areas, large-lot zoning aims to preserve open space and keep rural land viable for agriculture or forestry. Among its benefits, large lot zoning can leave wooded landscapes relatively intact and protect water quality, depending on how developments are sited and designed. However, with definitions of "large lots" ranging from 5 to 25 acres, large lot zoning can also result in a waste of rural land for tracts that are "too large to mow and too small to farm."

Some counties use variations of large-lot zoning in an effort to alleviate this negative effect. For instance, Albemarle allows landowners to create a limited number of small lots from a tract of land, after which only large lots can be created. Other variations include sliding scale zoning and clustering (below).


Sliding Scale Zoning

Sliding scale zoning helps to keep large parcels of land intact by allowing fewer building rights per acre for large tracts of land than for smaller tracts. For example, in Clarke County a parcel containing between 40 and 80 acres is allowed three houses while a parcel containing over 1,030 acres, no matter how large, can have only 15 houses. The theory is that the larger the parcel, the more of an agricultural resource it represents and thus the potential for non-agricultural use should be more limited.


Clustering

Clustering can limit the amount of land consumed by development by concentrating buildings on a small percentage of the property, leaving the rest as open space. Clustering does not limit the total number of development rights, so the development will result in the same impacts on water supplies, roads, and public services. However, when done well, clustering can help maintain usable tracts of land for agriculture or forestry, preserve viewsheds and watersheds, and protect wildlife habitats.


Phasing

Phasing limits the number of lots into which a tract of land can be divided over a certain period of time. Phasing does not change the total number of development rights, but it can help to prevent the rapid suburbanization of rural areas. This keeps local communities from being overwhelmed by demands for new infrastructure and it may dissuade developers from undertaking large scale subdivisions in rural areas.


Recognition of Resources

Honorary designations-such as historic districts, scenic highways, or scenic rivers-do not create any new restrictions on the use of property. However, such designations can help a community to identify resources that are important for conservation, which the community may then decide to protect through other means, including private land conservation. In one outstanding example of how honorary designations can motivate individual landowners, more than one third of the total land in the contiguous Madison-Barbour and Southwest Mountains Rural Historic Districts in Orange and Albemarle Counties is now protected through voluntary conservation easements.

 

 
 
 

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