James City makes initial moves toward land preservation programs reboot

Staff writer

While land preservation programs have been around for decades, James City County isn’t looking to revitalize them to return to business as usual.

Land preservation programs have wilted on the vine in recent years due to funding cuts prompted by the Great Recession. Now that there’s a better economic outlook, there’s renewed interest among county officials in reviving those programs.

Moving forward, supervisors want a more proactive approach to land preservation, one that features dedicated staff as well as active recruitment of landowners to protect their land.

“I think most of us are interested in doing something more than maintenance mode,” Board Chairman Jim Icenhour said.

The way the Board of Supervisors see it, the county would be wise to recruit a consultant to help get its land preservation programs off on the right foot. The search for that consultant could start by the end of this summer.

Given that rural lands are widely considered integral to James City County’s character, the funding of the programs would provide a means to preserve lands amid development spurred by brisk population growth in the historically agricultural locality.

There were fewer than 5,000 people living in James City County in 1940. In 2018, the county’s population was estimated at a little more than 76,000, according to census data.

And with those people has come development. Several supervisors noted the acquisition of land would help the county plan its future growth more effectively.

The county has several land-preservation programs — Purchase of Development Rights, the Greenspace Fund and Agricultural and Forestal Districts programs — which collectively protect thousands of acres of land.

More specifically, the Purchase of Development Rights program protects 802 acres, the Greenspace Fund 1,333 acres and the Agricultural and Forestal Districts program 17,892 acres, Principal Planner Tammy Rosario wrote in an email.

While united in purpose, the land preservation programs vary in practice.

Property owners keep their land and sell the development rights to the county or a conservation organization in the Purchase of Development Rights program. The county purchases land for preservation in the Greenspace Fund program. Property owners with land protected by the Agricultural and Forestal Districts program exchange tax relief for a guarantee not to develop.

Supervisors think there’s a need to better articulate the differences between programs and generally revisit how they function as a toolkit. Supervisors hit on the idea of hiring a consultant to review and better organize the county’s land-preservation tools during a work session June 25, the most recent of several board discussions on the topic.

The county should also think about how it encourages landowners to come forward to preserve their land or sell it to the county, Icenhour said.

Supervisor Michael Hipple said he’s heard complaints that the programs haven’t been user friendly, an issue that has to be addressed to make the tools useful.

Hiring a full-time county employee could be a big benefit to the smooth operation of the programs. That employee would act as a point person for landowners interested in finding the best program to suit their needs and ensuring applications are processed in a timely manner.

Assistant County Administrator Jason Purse supported the idea of a new county employee to run the programs, saying the county didn’t have the personnel to do that now.

“I don’t think we have the resources to handle that,” he said.

Over the years, the programs have had different levels of staffing. The Purchase of Development Rights program had a dedicated part-time employee from April 2003 to July 2010. That position then became on-call, and was eliminated in the fiscal year 2018 budget, Rosario said.

The employee who led the administration of the Greenspace program, in addition to other duties, since its creation in 1996 retired in 2017. For lack of funding, the role wasn’t included in future budgets. Other staff members have lent a hand in various supporting roles — monitoring and writing easements among them — for the programs since the late 1990s into the present, she said. Where the funding for the potential new position would come from hasn’t been determined.

Another issue is funding the programs.

The county created the Purchase of Development Rights program, funding it with $1 million in seed money, in November 2001. There was $300,000 allocated to the Greenspace Fund when it was set up in April 1996.

Currently, the Purchase of Development Rights program has $365,966 in the bank. The Greenspace account has $0, Rosario said.

So funding will be needed, though it isn’t clear how much and from what source.

There are state and federal grants out there that the county could pursue to fund the programs, Rosario said.

A request for proposal for a consultant could be developed and publicized by the end of the summer, Purse said.

But there’s still some groundwork to be done before that person comes in. The board directed staff to come back with further details on rebooting the program, such as a cost for the review of the programs.

“We need to see some real specifics before we start to commit,” Icenhour said.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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