Thursday, October 11, 2012

Thinking about tomorrow

If you caught a glimpse of the magnificent cavalry troop that traversed Goochland in the last days of September, you saw “rural” in action.

Phyllis Silber, executive director of the Goochland Historical Society, which sponsored and orchestrated the event, thanked the Board of Supervisors at its October 2 meeting for support from the Sheriff’s Office, Paul Drumwright of administration, and Dr. Pete Gretz, acting superintendent of schools.

Re-enactor Rick Smith of the Second US Cavalry (,) who portrayed the ill-fated Col. Eric Dahlgren, also thanked the community at large for a warm and enthusiastic welcome.

“There are no words to tell you what a great community you have here,” Smith, who wore his Union cavalry uniform, told the supervisors.

The reenactment, which began at the Rockville Equestrian Center on Thursday, September 27, finished with cavalry “skirmishes” at Tuckahoe Plantation the following Sunday. On Friday afternoon, the troop staged an educational program for county students at the home of Judee and Ed Wilson, which, according to Smith, “left about 200 elementary students grinning from ear to ear.” The 100 or so re-enactors, who came from as far away as Oregon to participate, had a good time too.

Smith said that the re-enactors were honored to put on the program for county schools. (Visit the school system’s great website at for details of this event.)

The re-enactment traced the route of the 1864 raid, staged to free Union prisoners on Belle Isle and either capture of kill Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. It failed, essentially because no one thought to bring a GPS. They got lost, the James River was too high to safely ford anywhere in Goochland, and Dahlgren was killed.

Staging the event was the result of nearly two years of careful planning and hard work by Silber and Dr. Bruce Venter, a local historian and Dahlgren expert, and the collaboration of many Goochlanders.

Goochland’s equestrian tradition, respect for history, and little change on much of the land traversed in the “raid,” made it the perfect venue for this re-enactment.

The very fact that Tuckahoe Plantation, where Thomas Jefferson may have learned to read, is pretty much as it was during the Civil War, and not a subdivision, is no accident.

Thanks to some generous and farsighted landowners, who have, at their own expense, placed conservation and historic easements on their property, parts of Goochland will never sprout crops of houses.

Leigh Dunn, the county’s environmental planner, gave the supervisors a primer on this form of land use.

Currently, there are 5,374 acres under conservation easements in Goochland, said Dunn. (Details are included in part A of the OCT. 2 board packet on the county website: Some easements are held by the county, but most are handled by outside entities, especially the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (

Hank Hartz of Oilville, who represented District 4 on the Goochland Planning Commission for eight years, and is former chairman of the VOF Board of Trustees, explained that the program is entirely voluntary. While landowners do receive federal tax credits for placing an easement on their land, it is usually far less than the development value of the property.

Landowners, said Hartz, place easements, which are donated, because they are committed to their property, not for the money. He also explained that the county must confirm that easements conform to the comprehensive land use plan before they are approved. That prevents a landowner from placing a “spite” easement on property to reduce its taxable value. For example, a conservation easement could not be placed on West Creek, because it is designated for economic development.

Placing a conservation easement on a parcel permanently reduces its value, hence the federal tax credit for the difference between highest and best use and easement value. The cost of appraisals and legal work involved in placing an easement is borne completely by the landowners.

During the days of ballooning property assessments, the reduction in land values as a result of an easement also shrank estate taxes, which made it possible for families to hold onto land over generations.

Hartz pointed out that the easements on Tuckahoe Plantation, for example, make it economically viable for its owners to keep it undeveloped. Without the easement, he opined, it would be a subdivision.

Dunn explained that most of the land currently under easement is taxed at the land use rate, although not in the land use program. (Under land use, property, which must be actively used for either agricultural or forestall purposes, is taxed at state determined per acre rate.) As the easement land was mostly in land use before the change in classification, there was little impact on collected revenues.

The latest iteration of the county’s comprehensive land use plan promotes the conservation of 20 percent of the county’s undeveloped agricultural and forestal land. This follows a similar state initiative endorsed by governors on both sides of the aisle to ensure that Virginia is not developed from the ocean to the mountains.

The holder of an easement, the county or VOF, is responsible for monitoring the property to ensure that it adheres to agreed upon conditions.

Purchase of development rights, said Dunn, is a different animal that involves one entity, often a local government, buying outright the difference between the agricultural and developed value of a parcel of land. Goochland did this in 2009, when it spent $155,000 to match state funds to purchase development rights.

There have been instances in other places, where localities decided that purchasing development rights was more cost effective than building schools and other infrastructure to serve new residents attracted by large subdivisions. Right now, it seems like Goochland is a long way from that sort of scenario.

Susan Lascollette, District 1, said that the use of tax dollars to permit some land to be taxed at a lower rate it not an appropriate use of public funds and wanted it stopped.

Dunn explained that the county’s purchase of development rights program has been inactive for several years. It is highly unlikely that this board will ever resurrect it.

A conservation easement is a gift of open space to the future. Goochland is blessed to benefit from the generosity of some of its citizens.

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