The speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates plans to propose Tuesday that the commonwealth dramatically increase the amount of money it spends to preserve open space, with a goal of setting aside about 600,000 acres over the next seven years.
Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), exerting his considerable political authority in his second week as speaker, will call for spending $40 million a year over the next two years to buy land and pay landowners who agree to preserve their property as open space, according to several people familiar with the proposal.
The amount of funding would represent a dramatic increase from the $1.75 million now budgeted by the state, but it is not as much as Maryland and other nearby states spend. Wilkins said he would not provide details of his plan until a news conference Tuesday.
Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) resisted calls to expand the conservation program in his proposed budget, although he did include funds for Civil War battlefield preservation. Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner said the governor had not yet seen the Wilkins proposal and would not comment. Many environmentalists, real estate agents and business interests approve of the plan, saying it would preserve land at a time when parts of the state, including Northern Virginia, are being developed heavily.
Wilkins said nonprofit groups and localities could apply for funding to preserve land all over the state--from the rolling hills and farmland in the north to the majestic mountain views and woodlands in the south.
Wilkins, a legislator from Virginia's heartland, is arguably the second most powerful figure in state politics as he presides over a new Republican majority. He said the conservation effort is urgently needed, and he listed a variety of reasons: "Aesthetic is one reason. Viability of farming is another, and just to be able to pass on our heritage to our children."
The money would be used to buy private property that owners agree to sell at market rates, or to place it in conservation easements. The cost of land varies dramatically in different parts of the state and, as a result, environmentalists could not estimate how many acres the proposal would preserve.
The proposal has picked up support from Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. In Northern Virginia, Callahan said, some of the money could be spent on land in rural western Loudoun, where farms are being replaced by subdivisions.
"You're going to run out of open space," Callahan said. "You've got to do something now or you can't do it later."
Virginia's population grew 1.2 percent from 1998 to 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But some localities in Northern Virginia have been growing at a much faster clip. Loudoun, home of America Online and several other booming technology firms, has emerged as the third-fastest-growing county in the country.
Some political leaders in Loudoun and other rapidly growing counties are pressing the General Assembly to give them more power to limit development. They are asking for permission to cut off residential construction if roads and schools cannot handle it, among other proposals.
Real estate and development interests oppose such measures, saying they trample on property rights and cause sprawl. A number of lawmakers echo those concerns.
But they support purchasing open space because the program is voluntary. "What's nice about this particular approach is that it is focused on willing sellers," said Doug Gray, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Realtors. "Realtors sell quality of life in the housing that they market. . . . They want a good quality of life and proximity to open space."
The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce also will push for the money. Chamber Chairman James W. Dyke Jr. said funds could be used to increase county parkland or create new ball fields or preserve trees near subdivisions.
Environmentalists said Virginia, which covers 39,598 square miles, has not been spending enough money on open space preservation. Environmentalists are uncertain how much land is set aside as open space but say Wilkins estimates the number at 400,000 acres.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has made protection of open space a hallmark of his administration. He has spearheaded the purchase of more than 150,000 acres to protect it from development.
In recent years, Maryland has spent an average of $70 million a year to preserve open space, while North Carolina has spent an average of $60 million annually, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Several people familiar with Wilkins's plans said he wants to increase the open space preserved statewide to a million acres by 2007 to mark the 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown. To achieve that goal, environmentalists said, Virginia will have to spend additional funds beyond the two-year budget being hashed out by lawmakers.
"The actual need is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but this is a good start," said Michael L. Lipford, vice president and director of the Nature Conservancy. "The issue has just become one that people have started to pay attention to as Virginia begins to lose its open space."
Northern Virginia preservationists said they are excited about the prospect of additional state money for open space.
"I see very, very heavy-handed, aggressive development ideas coming through here in western Prince William County," said Betty Duley, president of Prince William's historic commission. "I certainly would like to see some open space set aside."
Staff writers Craig Timberg and Daniel LeDuc contributed to this report.