Picture your favorite place in West Virginia. After millennia of civilization, development, and industrialization, some parts of the world still look as beautiful as ever.
As more land is being used for residential and commercial properties, some are concerned that those green spaces will become more difficult to find. In 2000, West Virginia passed the Voluntary Farmland Protection Act, allowing for the creation of county Farmland Protection Boards. Jefferson County wasted no time in establishing its own board that same year—with 21 county boards throughout the state today.
The Board is made of seven volunteers, requiring specific representation from the Jefferson County government, county residents, and farmers of various organizational affiliations. The program also employs one full-time program director, Elizabeth Wheeler.
“So far, we have approved protection of 4,200 acres throughout the county, and we are currently working with five more properties, totaling about 1,000 acres,” she explained. “It is a very competitive process, as funding limits the new properties that we can protect each year. Priority goes to properties with high acreage and good soil quality.”
Each protection agreement is called a conservation easement, which is acquired by land-owners selling their rights for the land’s development, agreeing to only develop the land for the purpose of agriculture, retail sale of farm products, and small home-based businesses.
Wheeler explained that compensation from selling development rights are used by land-owners as they see fit, often used to pay for mortgages, capital improvements, college funds, or investments for property maintenance. Much of the funding for acquiring easements come from the real estate transfer tax, donations, and some fundraising. The Board also works very closely with the USDA National Resources Conservation Service as well as the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program, both of which often assist in covering costs to acquire easements for property preservation with agricultural, environmental, or historical significance.
Jane Tabb is the County Commissioner liaison to the Board, and has worked on the Tabb Farm since 1975. “We don’t tell folks how to farm, and you don’t have to put your whole farm into the easement. You can save some land for your children or for development,” stated Tabb. She assured that the land-owner still maintains full use and property ownership of the land, and is able to sell or give the land as desired. These easements are maintained in perpetuity, so when the land exchanges hands, the protection will continue forever.
Amy Silver is the Executive Director of the Claymont Property, part of which has been under easement since 2013. “We were aware of the development going on around us, and after selling some of the property, we wanted to assure that the remaining property could remain intact,” stated Silver. “This program is a real asset to the county. If we don’t preserve this beautiful area, we will lose it.”
Susannah Buckles is a strong proponent of farmland protection, with the easement of her Gap View Farm being approved last year. “We’re not against development, but you can’t take it with you. What legacy are you going to leave?” she suggested.
“This board is made of people who really care about this county,” said Wheeler. “If you want to participate in keeping this place beautiful, every donation that you give goes directly to our land easements. If you want to serve on the board, or if you have another skill or interest that could help, I’d love to talk with you.”By Rich Goodman