The vast majority of land conservation in Virginia happens on private lands, as the result of voluntary choices made by landowners exercising their right to determine the use of their land. Every landowner’s property rights give them the option, within local planning rules, to either develop the land to the maximum extent feasible or to protect the natural values of the property. Land conservation provides a tool for landowners to continue existing uses of their land while providing some financial planning alternatives. It benefits the landowner while protecting the scenic and working landscapes of our state.
Virginia’s Land Preservation Tax Credit program is the tool that in recent years has facilitated most all of the land conservation transactions. This program provides a useful financial-planning tool for Virginia taxpayers, and has allowed donors of land and easements for conservation purposes to not only offset their own state income tax liability but also to receive some cash flow by selling their unused credits to other Virginia taxpayers. Providing this incentive to private landowners creates a public good through encouraging voluntary individual actions, rather than depending on the state’s limited funds to finance the preservation of conservation values.
Protecting our Natural and Cultural Resources
The conservation of land resources is essential to both the public well-being and the economic viability of the state and will continue to become more difficult in the future with increasing population. The Virginia Outdoors Plan used a wide-reaching statewide survey and inventory of existing parks and recreation facilities to identify statewide outdoor recreation priorities and issues. Impacts due to the loss of open space lands were identified as:
- Increased runoff and degraded water quality.
- Loss of tree canopy, affecting ecosystems, temperatures, and soil stability.
- Lack of open space, affecting the functional capacity of the area’s green infrastructure.
- Loss of land for outdoor activities, especially those that require large parcels of land.
- Declining air quality, which impacts scenery and human health and leads to increased EPA regulations that discourage future commercial and transportation development.
- Land conversion to developed areas alters traditional viewsheds and cultural landscapes.
Land conservation is about more than just aesthetics; it is a strategy for protection and improvement of water quality; preservation of cultural and historic sites; protection of our plant and animal communities; sustaining working landscapes, natural areas, and parks; and enhancing our quality of life as Virginians. Preserved open-space lands provide both economic and intrinsic benefits.
Protecting Working Lands Supports Virginia’s Largest Economic Engines
Today the majority of land conserved within Virginia contains farmland and forests. Agriculture and forestry are Virginia’s largest industries, with an annual economic impact of $55 billion from agriculture and $27 billion from forestry. The industries also provide approximately 500,000 jobs in the Commonwealth, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. Virginia lost 3.3 million acres, or over 20 percent, of its farmland between 1982 and 1997. The most recent information from the National Resources Inventory indicates that between 2002 and 2007, Virginia lost 60,800 acres of agricultural land directly to developed uses. Real estate cycles affect the rate of farmland loss to development, but the overall trend clearly reflects a declining agricultural acres.
With 15.9 million acres of forested land, Virginia is 62 percent forested. According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, urban growth and development resulted in an average net loss of 16,000 forested acres annually over the past 10 years. If current development trends continue, it has been projected that Virginia will lose a million acres of forest in the next 25 years. Protecting the Commonwealth’s working lands ensure that the necessary land-base for these important industries will be preserved for future use.
Protecting Historic, Cultural, Recreational, and Scenic Lands Supports Tourism Industry
Tourism has an annual economic impact of $19 billion and creates 205,000 jobs in Virginia. In 2010, tourism provided $1.2 billion in state and local taxes. Conserving the lands that represent the character of the Old Dominion preserves the landmarks, battlefield sites, and public parks and beaches that tourists travel from all over the country to visit.
Outdoor recreationists spend over $8 billion within the state annually, making recreation a highly significant factor in attracting travelers to the Commonwealth. Most of the popular forms of outdoor recreation for tourism are either dependent on resource lands and waters or enhanced by their proximity to them. Land protection is essential for ensuring outdoor recreation opportunities for visitors and for Virginia’s growing population, and to afford opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and experience Virginia’s diverse landscapes and landmarks. Long-term support for land conservation and open space protection are strongly tied to outdoor recreation experiences for all ages.
Both public and private lands are important for meeting the needs of outdoor recreation. Public recreation areas are increasingly in demand as urban and suburban residents seek respite through enjoyment of open spaces. Conserved private land is important, not only in providing much of the hunting opportunity east of the Blue Ridge, but also in maintaining scenic vistas and serving as buffer lands around major park and recreation areas.
Protecting Local Economic Values
Studies demonstrate that open spaces can boost the value of neighboring commercial properties. Businesses seeking an area in which to locate report that quality of life is a major factor in their decision-making, and cultural and recreational open spaces are important components in creating that quality of life.
Protected land generally enhances the value of nearby residential property. In most cases, home buyers prefer a view of a forest or meadow to a similar home with a view of developed property, and will be more likely to purchase if that view is guaranteed to remain in place. Recognizing this concept, many local governments strongly support land conservation, understanding that protected, undeveloped land generates more direct tax revenue than the services it requires, and that residential development typically brings in less revenue than it costs to provide support services. In addition, the increased value of properties near preserved lands means increased revenue to localities from permanent protection of green space.
A locality’s property tax revenues are reduced very little by conservation easements. A report by the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission indicates tax revenue losses due to conservation easements averaged only 0.26 percent of the annual budget for localities within that region. For localities that have adopted use-value assessment programs where revenues from eligible land are already lower, the effect of easements is no loss in revenue.
Protecting Water Quality
The condition of the landscape has a direct and highly significant impact on water quality. A naturally vegetated landscape provides the greatest benefits for water quality. Undeveloped lands, especially forests, filter both surface water and groundwater. Developed lands are predominantly impervious [paved] surfaces like sidewalks, buildings, and parking that do not allow water to filter directly into the ground. Water that cannot soak into the ground flows over the land surface, eventually ending up in a waterway.
The amount of impervious surface in a watershed directly affects the amount of runoff, influencing surface water quality in streams. Not only does impervious surface accelerate stream erosion and degrade water quality of surface waters or streams, it blocks or diverts water from infiltrating the soil to recharge ground water. The Center for Watershed Protection reports that stream quality in a watershed begins to decline when that watershed is covered by more than 10 percent impervious surface. When impervious surface areas within the watershed are between 10 to 25 percent, streams become “impacted” by runoff pollution. Between 25 percent and 60 percent impervious surface areas leave streams “damaged,” and at above 60 percent impervious cover streams are considered “severely damaged.”
The Cost of a Clean Bay: Assessing Funding Needs Throughout the Watershed, a 2003 report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, noted that the services provided by natural systems in retaining and filtering pollutants cannot be underestimated, from either an environmental or economic perspective. A study of urban tree loss in the D.C. metropolitan region by the American Forests calculated the pollution control benefits provided by its existing urban forest. The metropolitan D.C. area’s trees remove 20 million pounds of pollutants from the air each year, a benefit worth $50 million annually. The ability of trees to absorb stormwater, lessen erosion and reduce flooding was also analyzed. Urban trees were estimated to retain 949 million cubic feet of water. If these trees were lost and replaced by impervious surfaces, building equivalent retention facilities would cost the region $4.7 billion.
Costs of Not Conserving Open-Space Land
A number of localities have calculated the fiscal impacts associated with different types of land use and found that increased growth brings new area residents who require services — roads, sewage and water-supply infrastructure, fire and police services, schools, libraries, etc. — that increase local government costs at a level greater than the additional local revenue they contribute. “While it is true that an acre of land with a new house generates more total revenue than an acre of hay or corn, this tells us little about a community’s bottom line.” (American Farmland Trust, 2010) Increased population density in a locality eventually requires increasingly complex public services that increase per capita costs.
Since the cost to a locality to provide services to undeveloped land is relatively low, a net positive tax cash flow is achieved. Conversely, the costs to provide schools for the children in housing developments plus other municipal costs may be much greater than the tax and non-tax revenue that residential lands provide.
A 2012 study in Albemarle County, Virginia, found that, for every dollar of local revenue generated, the public costs for residential and institutional (hospitals, libraries, churches) development range from $1.29 to $1.59, a negative ratio. Commercial and industrial uses have a positive ratio, around $0.50 in costs for every dollar of revenue generated, and farmland generates even greater surplus revenue at $0.20 in costs for every dollar of revenue generated; however, the revenue-cost ratios associated with residential properties create a net deficit for Albemarle County, and for most other localities.
Through increased revenues generated by agriculture, forestry, tourism, and outdoor recreation, land conservation enhances Virginia’s largest industries and supports local economies. Conserved open lands also save localities the ongoing costs associated with support-service infrastructure and ensure sustainable working landscapes into the future. As an additional benefit, conserved lands can protect water quality, offsetting costs for managing stormwater and protecting drinking water supplies.
Information provided by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, April 2013.