By James Hohmann
Sunday, January 3, 2010; PW08
The Land Trust of Virginia, a Middleburg-based nonprofit group, met a decade-old goal this month by placing its 100th property and 10,000th acre in permanent conservation easements. Much of the land, on which development will be severely restricted, is in western Loudoun and northern Fauquier counties.
Don Owen, the trust's executive director, had reason to be happy Tuesday as he headed west in his Prius along the John Mosby Highway. Owen, 56, pointed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains skyline during a tour of properties his group has made off-limits to developers.
"Somebody like John Mosby, or a farmer who grew up in this area about 150 years ago, could show up and know exactly where he is," Owen said. "You can't say that about many places anymore. With permanent conservation easements on the majority of the land, it will look like this tomorrow and 200 years from now."
Owen, who lives in Harpers Ferry, took this job 18 months ago after retiring from the National Park Service, where for 23 years he was focused on protecting the Appalachian Trail. Before that, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
His group assists property owners who voluntarily put their land in easements, after which the land trust monitors the property to make sure the owners meet the agreed-upon conditions. The owners, who retain the title to the land, can use it for farming, forestry, recreation or whatever else has been agreed upon. In exchange, the owners get property tax breaks and ensure that the land will look largely the same for generations to come.
The Land Trust of Virginia set up its first easement in 1999. The first staff members came on board in 2005. There are now three full-time employees at an office in Atoka and seven regular contractors. Lawyers look over the language of the contracts and file them in local courthouses.
The end of the year is always busy for charities when tax considerations motivate some people to act. Owen has been very busy the past few weeks working out the details of complicated conservation easements.
So he was happy to be out of the office Tuesday. He stopped his car at the gate to the 100th easement his group had arranged, for a 99-acre property north of Upperville called Shiraz Farm.
Roger and Azita Rutti bought the land in 2000 with money they earned from their government information-technology consulting company. They moved from Fairfax County and set about making Shiraz Farm suitable for a horse farm.
"We went to McLean and Potomac and looked around, but everything we saw did not satisfy me," said Roger Rutti, 49, who grew up in Georgia suburbs. "I fell in love with this land because it seemed so remote out here."
The Ruttis said they're especially excited about protecting their land, where hawks fly overhead. The property runs along the road for only about 800 feet, but it extends more than a mile to the top of the Blue Ridges. It has four acres of wetlands and 45 acres of sensitive soil.
Rutti said he wants to make sure the land remains beautiful. The easement lets the couple stay on the land and gives them the right to build a small equine exercise ring along the road to their manor home.
The Land Trust of Virginia is one of several dozen trusts in Virginia. A major player in the area is the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Owen said. Western Loudoun has one of the densest concentrations of conservation easements in the country.
Landowners have always approached the Land Trust of Virginia, but Owen said he hopes to become more proactive in reaching out to people with property that has exceptional natural resource value.
He carries a resource map with all the plots of land in this area. Most are colored green. The white ones don't have easements -- yet.
"It looks like a little keyhole," Owen said of the Rutti lot. "This is the easement that just about wraps up the conservation of this entire area. Everyone from Upperville to Middleburg to Bluemont to Purcellville, everybody looks at this piece of property. You won't look at that hillside and see a bunch of houses someday."