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James City's Land Preservation Program

Saving Open Spaces and Serving as Stewards


Used by Permission of Review Publications, Inc., Virginia Review, Vol. 82, No. 5, 2004. 

 

By Ruth Richey
James City County Communications Specialist

 

When Bert Geddy hikes through the thick, green forest of his 167-acre tract on Cranston's Mill Pond in James City County, he can recall boyhood days of hunting, fishing and camping. Those boyhood memories, and ones like it that he shared with his own three children, may be in the past but he has taken steps to assure that his grandchildren will also enjoy this pristine property in the Yarmouth Creek Watershed.

 

Bert Geddy's family legacy runs deep here. He's a descendant of Colonial silversmith James Geddy Jr., whose 1762 house and foundry is open to visitors on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg. With the help of a land preservation program in James City County, Bert Geddy has also assured his own legacy for future generations who will be able to enjoy this undeveloped property for years to come.

 

"I've had a number of people interested in purchasing 10 or 20 acres. There are some nice, attractive homesites here," he said. Noting that property a couple of miles up the road has recently sold for $25,000 an acre, he said he thought hard before deciding to sell his development rights in James City's Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program.

 

"I'm not anti-growth but I think we need a balance of open land and development," he said. Bert Geddy feels a real commitment to the area: He is deputy fire chief for the Williamsburg Fire Department. He voluntarily agreed to sell his development rights to the property for $235,000, while maintaining the right to continue to own and use the land in its natural state. The program pays the difference between the current "fair market" value of the land and the estimated value if protected by a conservation easement, based on professional appraisals. This is an accepted method used to derive the current value of "development rights" inherent in a specific parcel. The property is then protected in perpetuity by a deeded conservation easement held by the County.

 

CRITICAL TO RETAINING "FLAVOR"

 

"Our PDR Program is a critical program designed to retain our rural flavor, support our scenic beauty and encourage continuation of our agricultural industry and forestlands," said County Administrator Sandy Wanner. "It provides landowners with an opportunity to make this a very special place but still allows them to have property rights."

 

Although James City County is one of the smallest counties in Virginia and has fewer agricultural acres than most counties, the County's natural environment is one of its most valuable, yet vulnerable, assets. The County's 144 square miles includes nearly 32 square miles that border water. During the early 1900s, there were approximately 580 farms and until the late 1950's, the County was still primarily agricultural. This compares to approximately 50 farms today.

 

Like other rapidly growing localities in Virginia, the County has experienced significant development pressure over the past two decades, with the population more than doubling between 1970 and 1990. This has resulted in environmental concerns about the reduction in the supply of quality water resources, degradation of watersheds, soil erosion, destruction of wildlife habitat and substantial losses of scenic vistas, sites of historical and archeological value, and agricultural and forest lands that define the County's rural character.

 

During the late 1980s, residents of the greater Williamsburg area began responding to growth management issues. A Williamsburg Regional Commission on Growth was formed that recommended nearly 100 ways to control growth. Environmentally concerned citizens also formed the Historic Rivers Land Conservancy for the regional planning of open space acquisition.  They changed their name to the Williamsburg Land Conservancy in 1996, and have since worked with landowners and the County on the purchase and protection of sensitive land tracts. 

 

The County's purchase of the 214-acre Mainland Farm in 1997 marked a victory not only for land preservation but for its potential to greatly expand our knowledge of Colonial Virginia. This farm, the oldest continuously cultivated farm in America, is the largest tract of undeveloped property remaining from the original 3,000 acre Governor's Land Charter of 1618. A local farmer rents the property and rotates crops of corn, soybeans and wheat in a green oasis amid nearby two-story colonials in modern housing subdivisions.

 

The James City County Board of Supervisors also took a strong measure in 1996 to ensure further open space acquisitions. They approved the establishment of an open space acquisition program to be used strictly for land purchases and funded it with one cent of the real estate tax. Although the open space acquisition fund proved beneficial for smaller tract purchases, it did not contain enough funds to save land in the growth areas and the larger farms that had become endangered due to development, family bequeaths, and increasing taxes.

 

An outcome of intensive public participation in the 1997 Comprehensive Plan Update was a recommendation to consider a PDR Program as "one of a suite of tools" for protecting rural lands, according to John Horne, James City's Development Manager. Many County departments worked collaboratively with each other and other governmental and private sector agencies on extensive research to develop a voluntary program that would result in perpetual protection of valuable lands while respecting the property rights of participating landowners. The County's legal, development management, financial, and community services departments all played a role in this effort and held numerous community meetings and public hearings.

 

A Virginia Tech survey in 2001 showed that the concept of land preservation was strongly supported by County residents. The survey reported that 74% of those asked agreed that it was more important to preserve County farmland than it was to have more development, 63% indicated a willingness to accept higher taxes to slow development, and 57% thought that it was important to set aside areas for open space in order to permanently preserve land and maintain the character of the community. Again, the Board of Supervisors listened to citizens and asked staff that same year to pursue creation of a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program.

 

"The PDR Program is an example of the impact that can result when citizens and local government work together to protect and enhance the quality of life for current and future generations," said Ed Overton, the County's program administrator.

 

FIRST ADMINISTRATOR HIRED

 

Michael H. Drewry, currently the County's assistant attorney, was hired as the program's first administrator. He was especially interested in working on ways to preserve family farms, drawing on his own experience of purchasing his own family's 400 acre farm in Surry County and his legal experience working with rural landowners and agricultural export interests.

 

He researched other PDR programs inVirginia Beach, and Albemarle and Loudoun counties. Fauquier County also was establishing its program during this time.

 

\He also served as an adviser to the newly formed state task force on this issue, which gave him the opportunity to meet with officials from the American Farmland Trust, Piedmont Environmental Council and others. He also looked at programs from neighboring Maryland, and other states across the country, including California.

 

Within months, he drafted an ordinance that created the PDR Program that the Board of Supervisors adopted in November 2001. The program is designed so that a conservation easement, established by deed, protects a parcel from future development. Landowners would be able to volunteer to sell or gift a conservation easement to the County and yet retain ownership and current uses of the land.

 

The Board of Supervisors appointed a PDR Citizen Advisory Committee that considered 14 applications representing 1,168 acres of farm, forest and environmentally sensitive land. The Board appropriated $1 million to a Capital Improvements Project account in FY 2002 for the start up of the program and the equivalent of one penny of the real estate tax rate annually to fund the program.


The 14 applications were ranked according to criteria such as size, presence of rare or endangered species, proximity to a river, reservoir or tidal marsh and location outside of an area served by water and sewer services. After recommendations were presented to the Board of Supervisors, appraisals were completed in late 2002 and the first easement was purchased in January 2003. The PDR Program was successful in purchasing four conservation easements in 2003, protecting nearly 364 acres of rural land in perpetuity at a cost of $1.1 million. These easements include a historic grain and vegetable farm with important agricultural soils, a pick-your-own fruit farm, the Geddy family forestland that is helping to protect the headwaters of a critical county watershed and an environmentally sensitive parcel with more than one mile frontage on Diascund Creek, a major tributary of the Chickahominy River.

 

MODEL FOR OTHERS

 

The success of James City County's PDR Program has garnered attention statewide and nationally. It won a 2004 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties. The County's program is also featured prominently in the recently released "A Model Purchase of Development Rights Program for Virginia" to help Virginia localities start PDR Programs, that will help keep farmland in agricultural production. This state publication is the first installment of recommendations by the Farmland Preservation Task Force of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

 

James City's program is one of only five in the state; the City of Virginia Beach and Albemarle, Clarke and Fauquier Counties also have programs.

 

The need to preserve Virginia's agrarian culture and forestlands is greater now than ever as land owners are enticed by ever higher offers by business developers to sell their land for shopping malls, mini-marts and residential housing. In fact, Virginia has lost an average of 45,000 acres of farm and forest land annually for the past two decades. Between 1997 and 2002, James City's farmland dropped from 10,002 acres to 8,902 acres, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, USDA.

 

The timing for preserving for farmland is also growing more urgent because the average age of a farmer in Virginia is near 60. And many of these farmers do not have a family member to take over the farm. "The whole United States is in this transition where a significant percentage of farmland and forestland is going through a transition in ownership," said Ed Overton, an Extension agent for 32 years before joining the PDR Program. "That is also true in James City County."

 

Property owners must weigh economics vs. long-term benefits. In James City County, for instance, farmland may be sold for more than $20,000 per acre, more money than that property could generate in years from agricultural uses. "The PDR Program is really for people who first want to preserve their land. That's the most important thing to them. And secondly, they want to take advantage of PDR because it allows them to obtain some of the value that they have in their property," Ed Overton said.

 

The program makes economic sense as well as offers long-term benefits for localities. "Most of these areas have no prospect of being commercial or industrial," James City Development Manager John Horne said. And by taking properties out of possible residential development, the County does not have to build schools, run water and sewer services and add additional services or infrastructure. "All of these things cost taxpayers a lot of money," he added.

 

The program will continue to grow in this Hampton Roads community because County leaders understand that the land use decisions made today will determine the Virginia of tomorrow. The County is currently reviewing seven applications representing 811 acres, some that also have historical importance.

 

"The future of PDR is looking at prefunding with bonding so that you can spread the cost into the future because that's when citizens will be enjoying the assets," said James City Board of Supervisors Chairman Bruce C. Goodson. "Clearly, the benefits of PDR are that you are purchasing open space that remains productive and you can purchase it so effectively."

 

"The current Board of Supervisors is keenly interested in the program and is looking at other avenues to develop more financial resources in support of the program," Administrator Sandy Wanner added. "The program is going to go as far as you have Board interest, financial resources and citizen interest in having lands preserved in their natural state, whether it's agricultural use or scenic beauty. The program has a long, long bright future because we value our history, we value our environment and our agricultural community. The balance between our urban core around the City of Williamsburg and this rural flavor makes us a super place."

 

"More and more counties are looking at establishing PDR Programs," John Horne said. "Virtually every one is struggling with how can we finance it with enough money to be effective." Localities are considering starting PDR Programs that complement other land growth tools such as zoning, land use taxation and agricultural districts. James City's less structured green space program, for instance, protects parcels considered critical to community character.

 

"Many other counties and cities are similar to our size in both population and land mass/geography and look to us as a progressive community," Sandy Wanner said. "They are facing similar problems."

 

John Horne foresees that Virginia will eventually start a state program like others that have been successful such as in New York and New Jersey.

 

"Elected officials and administrative officials, along with stakeholders, need to set goals and then fund the program to accomplish these goals as quickly as possible. The value of land is escalating faster than our ability to keep up," Ed Overton advised.

 

"It is Boards of Supervisors and City Council persons from Virginia localities who will provide the backbone for PDR programs," VirginiaSecretary of Commerce and Trade Michael J. Schewel said at a news conference that was held to unveil the state's model program. "Without the local political will to identify funds to purchase development rights and without other visible evidence of support for the program, PDR programs cannot succeed."

 

"The stakes are high…(with) 45,000 acres of farmland and forest lands being lost per year for development," Schewel continued. "Unless our farmland is preserved, farm businesses will exit the agricultural sector. At the risk of seeming very negative, without farmland and farm businesses, Virginia's agricultural sector, which now contributes more than $13 billion to the state's gross domestic product, will, over time, become nonviable."

 

"The way land values are escalating it's making the PDR Program very costly," Ed Overton added. "Yet, 50 years from now folks will look at PDR and similar efforts to preserve critical areas and they will be very appreciative of the efforts that were made. The true impact of this program will be realized by future generations who will enjoy rural scenery, farmers at work, wildlife habitat and protected natural resources and ecological areas."

 

The state's PDR model guidelines for localities are available at www.vdacs.state.va.us under "Special Programs and Quick Links." For more information, visit James City's Web site at www.jccEgov.com.

 

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