The Virginia Outdoors Foundation: A leader in open space land easements

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:07/19/2013

Founded in 1966, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation has conserved around 3,500 open space easements on over 675,000, much of that occurring under the tenure of Executive Director Bob Lee.

As Executive Director since 2004, Bob Lee saw the greatest expansion of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation’s (VOF) conservation easement holdings in decades. He will be passing off the baton to Brett C. Glymph, who has worked as Assistant Attorney General in the Real Estate and Land Use Section of the Virginia Attorney General’s office since 2006. Before leaving, Lee was kind enough to give us some insight into what has made VOF such an effective tool of private lands conservation.

Prior to Lee’s assuming office in 2004, almost 40 years after VOF’s founding in 1966, the organization held approximately 1,500 open space easements on almost 250,000 acres. Today, VOF has conserved more than 675,000 acres and is responsible for around 3,500 easements, and those numbers continue to grow by the day. Such an astonishing increase, taking place in less than a decade, is a testament to the hard work of Lee, the VOF staff, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s efforts to encourage conservation –  especially the Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credit – and, of course, the commitment of Virginia’s private landowners to being good stewards of their land.

Lee explains: “We’re a leader in private land conservation… unlike other states, Virginia doesn’t have a dedicated source of funding to buy conservation lands, so we work with current landowners to keep their lands in private hands, but to protect their conservation values and purposes through this non-possessory interest called the conservation easement, or in our case an open space land easement.”

Virginia has been “a leader in volunteer land conservation primarily because of the [Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credit] and the longstanding commitment that goes back to Thomas Jefferson of private landowner stewardship,” says Lee.

According to Lee, the tax credit is “the most generous transferable state income tax credit in the nation by far.” The credit is worth 40 percent of the land’s value, with a cap of $100,000 per year, and any leftover credits can be rolled over or sold for an additional ten years.

The ability to transfer tax credits is often an important factor in the decision of whether to conserve land for landowners who are land rich but cash poor, and would otherwise struggle with the financial burden of committing to a conservation easement.

VOF also helps landowners reduce costs in its own unique ways. Unlike most land trusts, VOF does not ask for a stewardship endowment from people creating an easement. In fact, the foundation does not ask for any money from a landowner “until you’ve had an easement from us for at least a year, and even then we don’t really ask you for any money because we’re supported by the state,” clarifies Lee. This is achievable thanks to a small fee paid to the Virginia Department of Taxation any time a tax credit is transferred, of which a portion goes to VOF to support stewardship.

They also receive funding in the amount of one dollar any time a property is recorded by the courthouse in a district where they have at least one easement.

In addition, Lee says the organization is also “unique in that we have something called the Preservation Trust Fund, which is money given to us by the state legislature to make sure that the transactional costs of doing an easement – the appraisals, legal work, surveys if necessary – don’t preclude [an easement] from getting done.”

“So for people that really are land rich-cash poor when that easement’s recorded, we can reimburse them for at least a portion, if not all, of their costs –  their transactional costs, the hiring of professionals to put the easement in good shape so we can take it. And we’re the only state agency that can do that.”

Another advantage of registering easements with VOF is that they operate under the Virginia Open Space Land Act, which legal observers consider to be the strongest legislation for voluntary conservation in the United States, and, ultimately, their attorney is the Attorney General of Virginia. Because of this strong legal backing, VOF’s easements offer the most effective protection from eminent domain and other threats to the integrity of conservation easements.

In terms of easement priorities, “we have something called special project areas where we work with other groups that are concerned about natural and cultural heritage, and we ask them to identify, spatially, areas where the attributes are such that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

These other agencies and nonprofits do the research and outreach to landowners in these targeted areas, and in turn VOF will do easements in those special project areas over others, all things being equal.

Furthermore, over the years they have recognized that other agencies and organizations are more suited to doing easements on specific lands. VOF used to holds easements on Civil War battlefields, but Lee determined that, since they don’t have architectural historians, they should direct all future battlefield easements to the Department of Historic Resources.

Likewise, VOF’s staffs are not foresters and, recognizing this, they worked hard to teach the Department of Forestry how to hold easements on lands managed for timber production.

Virginia is a big state, and as such it takes a collaborative effort between VOF, local and state agencies, and nonprofits like the Piedmont Environmental Council, which I recently wrote about, to conserve land state wide.

With over 675,000 acres conserved, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation is the largest holder of open space land in the country, and is an excellent example of a state – or quasi-state – agency efficiently and effectively preserving naturally and culturally important private lands, rather than embarking on the costly endeavor of buying lands for conservation outright.