Loudoun conservation easements grew 5 percent in 2009

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010; LZ01

Loudoun County expanded the number of acres under conservation easements by 5 percent last year, the Piedmont Environmental Council said last week.

The addition of 2,354 acres last year brought permanently conserved land in Loudoun to 46,164 acres, the environmental group said. In the nine-county Piedmont region, 18,065 acres were protected through easements last year, increasing the number of conserved acres to 325,530, an area larger than Shenandoah National Park.

"We continue to have healthy increases in the number of permanently conserved acres in Loudoun County," said Michael Kane, the council's land conservation officer for Loudoun. "Landowners want to conserve their land."

Western Loudoun has one of the densest concentrations of conservation easements in the country. The bulk of last year's total came from one project, Purcellville's placement of 1,271 acres under easement protection to protect a major source of drinking water. Purcellville made its agreement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a state-chartered land trust.

The foundation primarily works with private property owners, who permanently limit their use of the property to protect conservation, scenic or historic values. Easements protect a wide variety of natural resources, including farm and forest land and watershed areas. In exchange, the property owners get lucrative, transferable property tax breaks.

Loudoun ranks sixth among counties in Virginia in total acreage under easement since the foundation's inception in 1966. The county trails Fauquier, Albemarle, Rockbridge, Orange and Rappahannock counties. But Virginia counties in the Shenandoah and southwest regions are rapidly moving to preserve land.

Bob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, said the amount of acreage under easement continues to grow throughout the state because of tax credits that took effect in 1999.

On Wednesday, the Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit group, announced that it had purchased 13,350 acres in Dragon Run Swamp on the Middle Peninsula in the eastern part of the state for a conservation easement, the largest such easement in Virginia history. Dragon Run is considered one of the most ecologically significant areas in the Chesapeake Bay region. The easement prohibits timber harvesting in wetlands and within 100 feet of wetlands and streams.

Purcellville's new easement is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. The property includes a significant portion of the watershed above the J.T. Hirst Reservoir, three springs and the reservoir itself. The reservoir provides nearly one-half of the drinking water for the town. The easement was the largest in Loudoun and the first by a Loudoun municipality.

"We don't ever want to see a future council say they are going to sell off a piece of it to allow development in our watershed," said Purcellville Mayor Robert W. Lazaro Jr., who is also a spokesman for the Piedmont Environmental Council.

Kane said preserving land is vital for the area's economic future. "How are you going to have agriculture in the future?" he said. "It's got to start with an adequate supply of productive farm land and an adequate supply of water. Land conservation strikes at the heart of that by protecting land and water resources."

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