William Welsh's June 13 Close to Home piece called for government acquisition of riverside properties along the Virginia side of the Potomac River Gorge as a way to protect the gorge's scenic and recreational qualities.
He is not alone in his concern for the natural landscape. Last year, for example, 148 open-space initiatives were on state, county and municipal ballots, and 124, or 84 percent, were approved, providing funding totaling more than $5 billion. Although tax hikes often are considered political suicide, the public is sending a message that it is willing to pay for more and better parks, scenic greenways and protected farmland.
Not many people realize that the Potomac River is the wildest, most natural river running through a major city anywhere in the world. Plummer's Island, just inside the American Legion Bridge, is home to nearly 50 rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species.
The Potomac's recreational opportunities are unrivaled in the region, and its history is linked with our nation's founding and the development of its most important city. The river also provides more than 80 percent of the drinking water for the metropolitan area.
The Potomac's health and vitality are inseparable from our own. Yet we continue to cut trees along its banks, foul its waters and litter its shores. Nevertheless, we have reason for optimism. Although government purchase of the residential properties fronting the gorge is unlikely, the Potomac's future is being quietly secured through the private initiative of individuals and nonprofit organizations.
The Potomac Conservancy and other land trusts are using what are known as conservation easements to help landowners achieve their conservation goals while benefiting a public that values the natural qualities of the landscape. The use of easements around the country has exploded in recent years because they are voluntary, flexible and driven by financial incentives.
When landowners donate a conservation easement to the Potomac Conservancy, they lose certain development rights on their property in perpetuity. These rights may include being able to subdivide a lot, cut trees or build additional structures on a given property. Because in most instances such a donation reduces the value of the property while achieving important public conservation objectives, an easement qualifies the donor for reduced income, property or estate taxes. This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that will provide easement donors with an additional state income tax credit.
As Welsh correctly noted, most of the riverside residents have embraced the responsibility that comes with the privilege of living on the Potomac. Those property owners who have placed voluntary conservation easements on their land deserve special thanks from those of us who care about the quality of life in this region.
-- Matthew Logan
is executive director of the Potomac Conservancy.