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SoVaNow.com / January 30, 2012“In perpetuity” is a mighty long time.
But that’s precisely the length of protection from development for two large tracts of land near Virgilina — at the behest of their owners.
In exchange for considerable tax breaks, landowners give up the right to divide, develop or build extensively on the land. They will also submit to forestry management practices. The idea is that the land remains rural and in one huge chunk, that it stays a wildlife habitat and that it contributes to clean water and clean air.
Mac and Brenda McDannald of the Union community own one of two easements recently accepted into a program with the Virginia Department of Forestry — a roughly 1,300-acre tract of mostly loblolly pine near the Omega community.
The McDannalds can still harvest timber under a best-practices plan. They can still hunt on it. They can divide it into three tracts as long as each tract is overwhelmingly wooded. They can build a very limited number of buildings on it. They can bequeath it to their heirs, and they can sell it.
But the forestry easement protection stays put.
McDannald cited an anecdote involving a rich man in another part of the state who thought he could get around easement regulations by throwing his money and his lawyers on the case. Couldn’t do it.
“You can’t change it under any circumstances,” McDannald said. “Five hundred years from now that land will still have an easement on it.”
And he’s OK with that: He likes the tax benefits. He likes the idea of helping to preserve Halifax County’s rural nature. He likes keeping the large tract contiguous.
McDannald is not averse to small, rural subdivisions — he’s developed three, in fact — but he also thinks conservation and protection have their places.
An even more recent addition than the McDannalds’ is a newly accepted 1,000-acre-plus plot, also near Virgilina. Called the Blue Wing tract, the land is owned in part by Dr. Carlyle Franklin, a retired professor of forestry at North Carolina State University, who originally sought it for hunting ( see sidebar).
Andrew Brown, a Virginia Department of Forestry forester based in Halifax County, wants more people to know about this option: It helps landowners pass on tracts with a lessened tax burden, it helps keep chunks of land together and it helps the forestry department encourage good land stewardship.
“It’s not like a state park,” Brown said. The landowner is still the landowner; “They’re just giving up their development rights.”
Part of Halifax County’s appeal in tourism and economic development, Brown said, is its rural nature: open land, wooded land, lakes and rivers.
Tracts need not be huge, said Brown.
The forestry department is not the only entity involved in easement granting. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, for example, is another. Different groups have different goals, he noted.
(Conservation easements are not to be confused with county ag-forestal districts, such as the Mildendo Agricultural and Forestry District near Nathalie. That tract was in the news this past fall when it was cited as a factor against a weapons-training facility that was proposed for the community.
Halifax County accounts for large chunk of Virginia land granted easements
Halifax County had more than 2,300 acres of forestland placed under conservation easements in 2011 with the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) — accounting for more than a quarter of all land set aside through the agency for the year.
Halifax’s two easements were among 24 recorded statewide by the VDOF. The conservation program took in 8,005 acres, with Halifax’s 2,300 acres comprising nearly 29 percent of the total.
“Halifax County was certainly the busiest area in the state in looking at conservation easements, said Mike Santucci, a VDOF forest conservation specialist who helped both Mac McDannald and Dr. Carlyle Franklin with their easements. “It is very unusual to have two such large landowners in the same area.
“They are as good an example of working forestry as can be found,” Santucci said.
Greene County in western Virginia actually saw more individual easements carried out in 2011, but the acreage was far less than that in Halifax, he noted.
“Large, unbroken forestry tracts with single owners are getting rarer and rarer, and any time you can protect them it offers natural benefits for everyone,” Santucci said.
”I feel especially good about the easement from the landscape perspective, in that our rural land areas are becoming so fragmented with ever smaller tract sizes that it has to be a good thing to preserve and apply good management to a contiguous property of 1,000 plus acres,” said Dr. Franklin, owner of the Blue Wing tract near Virgilina.
“Somehow, it feels like it is big enough to make a real contribution to the betterment of natural resources in the community and the region.
“The members of Blue Wing are definitely forward thinking conservationists who are committed to active and sustained forest management, evidenced by their commitment to good forest management and their decision to convey the easement. We are thankful for the opportunity to help them achieve their forest conservation goals for their property,” said Santucci.
Dr. Franklin, who bought the tract in 1994, said the purchase was a culmination of a search for good hunting grounds. “Our primary interest was turkey hunting with full expectations that deer and small game would become plentiful with good management.”
Brown pointed out that Dr. Franklin has been ardent about protecting water quality and using good forestry practices. “They have been very gracious in hosting forest landowner outreach workshops that promote these beneficial practices that demonstrate, in a practical way, the link between protecting water quality, enhancing wildlife habitat and good forestry practices.”
Brown says he has worked with both Franklin and McDannald to help them properly manage their properties while providing knowledge and advice.
“It’s awesome,” Brown said, “this one tool (easements) for passing down property to future generations in the same condition as it is currently in.”
While easement agreements may differ slightly, they call for stewardship plans which show when timber needs thinning and properly harvested. Brown says he provides that kind of hands-on assistance to those who place their land under easement.
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