Photo by Marco Sanchez
Successful land conservation requires action at all levels to protect the Commonwealth’s diverse landscapes. Land conservation is critical in achieving measurable goals on protecting water quality, water supply, climate resiliency, and the Chesapeake Bay. State agencies, local communities, and private individuals need the right tools to protect working farms and forests, scenic landscapes, natural areas, wildlife habitat and game lands, historic resources, and parks and recreational areas for Virginia’s present and future generations. Virginia currently has a variety of programs and approaches that can deliver lasting results across the Commonwealth.
Virginians have said repeatedly in surveys, polls, and at the ballot box that they are willing to invest in the protection of open space. This support for land conservation funding was evident during the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, where HB1470 — a bill that proposed cuts to Virginia’s Land Preservation Tax Credit (LPTC) — was soundly defeated after strong citizen opposition to the bill. It is important to recognize, however, that not all projects can be accomplished through the LPTC. As such, the 2013 Virginia General Assembly session (HB1398) addressed this need by requiring the Governor to appropriate certain funds for three existing conservation grant funding programs. It is unfortunate that we have yet to see funding levels match what is required by the legislation.
Land Preservation Tax Credit
Directly responsible for conserving more than 786,000 acres in Virginia since 2000, the Land Preservation Tax Credit is Virginia’s most successful, dependable land conservation funding program and is one of the best land conservation tax incentive programs in the nation. This program is an efficient and effective way to encourage private voluntary land conservation by providing taxpayers who make gifts of land or conservation easements tax credits equal to 40% of the value of their donated interest. Landowners with lower incomes who are unable to use all of their tax credits may transfer unused but allowable credits to other taxpayers.
“Directly responsible for conserving more than 786,000 acres in Virginia since 2000, the Land Preservation Tax Credit is Virginia’s most successful, dependable land conservation funding program and is one of the best land conservation tax incentive programs in the nation.”
Conservation Grant Programs
Meeting Virginia’s land conservation goals is made possible by three main grant programs. The Office of Farmland Preservation, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, and the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund have protected thousands of acres by providing matching grants, ensuring these significant sites and landscapes are available for future generations to use and enjoy. In 2007, Virginia delivered on a commitment to working farms and forestland by providing limited grant funding to localities with certified farmland preservation programs. The program requires counties to match dollar for dollar the amount that is granted to them by the Commonwealth. In FY17, localities pledged $16.5 million in matching funds, over 32 times the $500,000 budgeted by Virginia. Unfortunately, this grant program received yet another hit in the most recent legislative session, receiving 25% of the promised funding from the 2016 budget.
The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation (VLCF) provides state matching grants for the preservation of various categories of special lands in the Commonwealth. These grants are awarded on a competitive basis for the protection of open spaces and parks, natural areas, historic areas, and farmland and forest preservation. VLCF leverages local and federal investment for conservation by paying no more than 50% of the cost of worthy projects. VLCF grant applications consistently exceed available funds. Since 2000, over $82 million of VLCF grants have been requested while only $28 million have been available. This represents a lost opportunity for the Commonwealth to capture more than $50 million in federal, local, and private matching dollars for land conservation. Additional cuts made in 2017 have only compounded this problem. The third grant program is the Virginia Battlefields Preservation Fund. Virginia has witnessed multiple wars and conflicts, including the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War. With battlefields scattered across the Commonwealth, preservation of these sites remains a challenge. Continued support for the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund is the best way to meet this challenge.
Funding Agricultural Best Management Practices
Historically, Virginia’s funding for agricultural BMPs and associated technical assistance has fluctuated significantly from year to year. The uncertainty associated with funding levels creates substantial challenges and inefficiencies. In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly established a stakeholder group to address these issues. That stakeholder group — which is comprised of several legislators, conservation groups, and agriculture representatives — will develop recommendations to submit to the Virginia General Assembly in 2018.
What amount of funding is needed to achieve the water quality and economic benefits of agricultural BMPs? Every other year, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) — along with farmers, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and other stakeholders — answers this question by compiling a needs assessment that details the cost of necessary BMP implementation across the Commonwealth. Relying in part on the most recent needs assessment, state legislators and Governor McAuliffe worked closely together on this issue in the Virginia General Assembly, appropriating $78 million in support of agricultural BMPs in the last two years — this includes $62 million for FY17 and an additional $16 million for FY18. While this represents a record amount of funding, a substantial gap remains between appropriated funding and the identified needs to improve water quality and soil health across the Commonwealth.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and other easement-holding agencies, such as the Department of Forestry and Department of Conservation, are tasked with acquiring, holding, and stewarding conservation easements for the Commonwealth. With 800,000 acres of easements held by VOF alone, stewardship is essential in providing assurance that the conservation values protected by the easement are intact in perpetuity. A lack of funding commensurate with the growing acreage has continued to erode our agencies’ ability to keep up with the demand for new easements.
Recommendations for 2018
After last session’s demonstrated support for the Land Preservation Tax Credit program, the Virginia General Assembly should make no more changes that would reduce the impact and availability of this important land conservation tool. The cap should not go below $75 million and the annual use limit should go back to $50,000 per individual in 2018 and beyond. Virginia should provide full support for its successful grant programs, as called for in HB1398. Funding for FY17 was less than one-third of which was promised under the legislation. The amount should have been $20 million, allocated as follows: $16 million for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, $2 million for the Office of Farmland Preservation, and $2 million for the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund. The Virginia General Assembly should support measures that provide full funding for our easement-holding agencies in order to ensure they are able to accept, hold, and provide adequate stewardship of conservation easements.