INTERNAL WORKING PAPER – DRAFT 2/10/04
CONSERVATION EASEMENTS – A GOOD PROGRAM FOR THE FAUQUIER PUBLIC SCHOOL DIVISION
Perpetual conservation easements, whether donated or purchased, are good for the County’s public schools. The Commonwealth of Virginia uses a formula known as the ‘composite index’ to determine the distribution of State basic school aid between public school divisions. The largest single factor (55%) of this funding formula entails dividing the total fair market value of real property by the school population. Simply put, the more property value per child, the less State funding for a local school division. When a conservation easement is placed on land, the fair market value of the property is reduced because of the restricted uses permitted and the reduction of dwelling unit rights. The Code of Virginia was amended a number of years ago to define the fair market value for property under perpetual conservation easements as being the value set for agricultural, horticultural, silvicultural, or open space uses under the State guidelines. This preferential assessment program in Virginia is often referred to as ‘use value’ or ‘land use taxation’. Fauquier County has more land under perpetual easement than any other political subdivision in Virginia; more than 50,000 acres. Without easements, some of this land would have enormous fair market value that would substantially reduce the amount of State funding to Fauquier under the composite index formula. Therefore, it is in the public interest to encourage additional conservation easements.
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF), a State agency, holds most of the conservation easements in Fauquier County. VOF has strict guidelines that assure clear public benefits from the easements. These easements are located in rural and agricultural areas where transportation of students and construction of schools would be expensive and inefficient. The permanent restrictions against new residential development which these easements incorporate are consistent with the County’s adopted Comprehensive Plan. These private/public land use decisions represent enlightened land stewardship and good governmental land use planning. The uses permitted on the eased lands are definitively tax positive for the community even when the reduced fair market valuation is considered. There have been numerous objective studies that document this tax positive benefit.
An earlier proposal for an expanded Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program noted that a lot and residence in Fauquier County would have to be worth more than $700,000 to generate real property taxes required to fund the local tax cost of educating one child for one year in the Fauquier County Public School System. Without conservation easements on more than 50,000 acres of land in Fauquier County, there would be much less State funding for education and the local tax cost of supporting a quality school system would be much greater.
There are many other benefits to our children associated with the easement assured open space. This County’s agrarian heritage and bucolic landscape tapestry create a wonderful and healthy learning environment. Efficient human settlement patterns in our County are protected for future generations as a result of the private philanthropy and public investment in conservation easement programs. Some adjacent jurisdictions have experienced terrible dysfunction, increased tax rates, and massive long term debt as a result of unrestrained residential growth. The school infrastructure in these rampant growth communities can not keep pace with population and service demands. School identity, like community identity, becomes lost in a whirlwind of change and dislocation. Redistricting of schools becomes a never ending process leading to impermanent personal relationships and ever changing student alignments.
All of these factors suggest that conservation easements are crucial to the continued health and vitality of the Fauquier County Public School System. Donated easements and purchased or proferred easements all produce the positive benefits outlined above.