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March 31, 2020 · OPINION

Now, more than ever, we need open spaces

Photo/Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
The 1,862-acre Sky Meadows State Park near Paris offers miles of hiking trails.
By Christopher G. Miller
Piedmont Environmental Council

In these emotionally and physically trying days of COVID-19 quarantines and social distancing, many people are increasingly turning to iconic parks, trails and green spaces for solace, exercise and restorative access to nature. And that’s great news.

But our current situation is showing us, loudly and clearly, that we need more of them. In just two weeks, so many people have converged on the same popular spots that crowds have tipped past “social distancing” thresholds, and some of these places have been closed or severely limited to access as a result.

The value of open space, within each and every local community in Virginia, is now more evident than ever before. Today, communities are relying on their local parks and greenways to help combat the feeling of isolation, to get exercise and breathe fresh air, and to engage their children in life around them.

But the need for these places will far outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. For even under normal circumstances, every person needs and deserves the health benefits of places to walk and recreate within their own community, places they can get to easily and quickly, regardless of means or mode available.

As we converge on our parks and trails like never before, we must remember that these places don’t happen by accident.

Parks, open space, trails and greenways distributed throughout local communities must be a goal for every county and town and a regular, committed area of local and state capital investment. We must understand how critical these places are to health and wellness, and we must plan and budget for them in each and every comprehensive plan and county capital improvement plan. 

Smart land-use policies will plan urban-rural development to include the creation of public access to parks and green spaces. They are a key to thriving communities where people want to live and can live well. Moms and dads, kids and dogs, friends and family, runners and walkers and bikers alike will always benefit from local public access to trails, parks, and open spaces, close to home.

The Piedmont Environmental Council has for years advocated and actively partnered to create community-based parks, trails and open spaces in the northern Piedmont, including:

• Bicycle and pedestrian connectivity in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

• Multi-use trail access between the Town of Gordonsville and James Madison’s Montpelier via the Town to Trail initiative.

• Interconnected linear parks and trails in Loudoun County via the Emerald Ribbons initiative, ranging from greenway links to Silver Line Metro stations to access to the Potomac Heritage Trail and the Appalachian Trail.

• A national capital trails network throughout Northern Virginia.

• The Warrenton Branch Greenway 

• Rappahannock Landing Park in Remington, with links to trails.

• Increased public access to the Rapidan River in Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties.

• Donation of public land for a pocket park near Orange High School in the Town of Orange.

• The new public access trail in Loudoun County along the Old Carolina Road, in partnership with NOVA Parks at Mt. Zion Church Park.

Transfer of land to the Appalachian Trail next to the Sky Meadow State Park and hiking trail at the Piedmont Memorial Overlook.

• Integrated public access (sidewalks, trails, parks) to development projects like data centers and technology companies to provide new access opportunities for non-traditional commuters.

• Rural historic districts and scenic road designations highlighting community resources and providing pleasant drives to local parks.

Areas like these areas are needed throughout Virginia. The Piedmont Environmental Council supports state and local funding for parks, open space, trails, greenways and water access. We also deploy our own funding through the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, local bond issues and private donations. We have donated land and invested financially toward national parks and trails that generate tourism revenue for local counties.

We are grateful to the many other organizations that also advocate for these locally-based places, including the many members of the Virginia United Land Trusts (VaULT) working throughout the Commonwealth. And currently, Congress is considering The Great American Outdoors Act, which would provide federal matching funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to support recreational facilities in local communities across the country.

But local governments need citizens to stand up and make their voices heard, to ensure publicly accessible parks, trails and green spaces are prioritized at the local level. During this time of “social distancing,” please consider reaching out to your local elected officials to advocate with us for the creation, promotion, and protection of local, nearby parks and green spaces that you, your family and neighbors, and all in your community can easily access.

The writer is president of The Piedmont Environmental Council, a Warrenton-based nonprofit organization that works to protect the natural resources, rural economy, history and beauty of the Virginia Piedmont. He is a founding member of both the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Choose Clean Water Coalition and serves on the boards of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, the Virginia Conservation Network, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership. This column originally appeared in Virginia Mercury.

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nonewtaxes · April 10, 2020 at 11:50 pm
well the county board has two republicans, a rhino, a democrat, and a puppet.

Still, we dont agree in detail. Say say repubs should not be ok with paying for easements but dems are ok because they like big government. I say dems should not be ok because they like progressive taxation and easements are hyper regressive.

That, therein, is the hook. Dems ok looking the other way with respect to the regressive tax nature of easements. Therefore, they abandon their fundamentals as easily as the republicans when they have a chance to make a little bit of money. I challenge you to find a democrat who doesnt want to tax the rich.

BTW as a point of symmetry jimmy. WHen you go personal, and you do a lot, you claim that it cant be because of my screen name aint the name on my birth certificate. Well then, I submit, that i cant go personal for the same reason except in reverse.

Jim Griffin · April 8, 2020 at 9:18 am
Name calling suits you. It's who you are, NNT, or whatever screen name you are wearing today. Even when we agree on policy you snipe personally while hiding under a hood. You are among the worst of this fine community.

Tell us, NNT, precisely which Democrats enact and support conservation easements? Who on the county board is a Democrat and votes for these easements?
nonewtaxes · April 8, 2020 at 9:10 am
Without a doubt when dems and repub agree on something it is because they both benefit financially - and usually at the expense of the rest of us such as easements.

Little Jimmy you tried to slip the point again. The dems love big government and to fund big government they love progressive taxation. Easements are paid for through regressive taxation. That should ire the dems but they too go against the tenets of their party when it comes to making a little bit of money.
PabloCruz · April 6, 2020 at 12:16 pm
Nonewtaxes- a possible answer to your question; it appears that at some point, your money becomes more important than your politics. That is to say, among the ultra wealthy, they are basically all the same.
Jim Griffin · April 6, 2020 at 10:18 am
Easy answer: Republicans supporting easements are engaged in hypocrisy because it violates their creed's first principle. Democrats are seemingly more accepting of the strong hand of government intervention into markets and taxation.

I disagree with those who support easements, Democrat or Republican, but Republicans should already know better. Their natural instinct is opposition to central planning and substituting judgment for that of the market, especially so with regards to the principal means of production in our county (our land).

It is more surprising to see a Republican support the basic tenants of socialism, but I make this argument in large part because I want to appeal to the good sensibility of this county's voters (largely Republican).
nonewtaxes · April 6, 2020 at 9:37 am
You always be saying that Republicans should not be for conservation easement and ding them for supporting such. Yet you do not ding the democrats who also support the same. Democrats love and embrace progressive taxation. Conservation easements are hyper regressive taxes. Why should someone who owns a $350,000 house subsidize the property taxes of someone who owns a $3,500,000 house?

The conservation easement program is merely a tax shelter which benefits wealthy people who are both republicans and democrats. This is the only thing reps and dems agree on - how to transfer taxes to everybody else.

This transfer of tax burden is borne by the everyday home owner as conservation easements shrink the tax base by sheltering from taxes the properties of the wealthy. When someone with 1,000 acres of land transfers their tax responsibility to someone with 1/10 an acre of land there might be a problem. Only 3 1/2 more years until you can make change - if you want it.
Jim Griffin · April 1, 2020 at 3:07 pm
I mentioned two taxpayer costs: Acquisition of the rights and the tax consequences. I failed to add the effect conservation easements have on state allocation of school aid.

Some say this can be addressed through state legislation. That's true, it could, but it hasn't happened, and why would it?

Why would the counties that would watch us benefit (they are in the clear majority) agree to legislation that would help Fauquier (and similarly situated counties, a distinct minority) at the expense of their constituents? Isn't this why it hasn't happened? I feel sure Del. Webert has tried his best with no success.

So we bear at least three additional expenses related to conservation easements. And no, none of the consequences are voluntary in nature -- the only thing voluntary is the land owner's agreement to accept the offered compensation.
Linda Ward · April 1, 2020 at 2:38 pm
Please pick up after yourself when you do use these open spaces. I'm getting tired of picking up other people's trash.
Sonny Day · April 1, 2020 at 2:27 pm
Perhaps it is time to divide this county, one of the largest in Virginia, into 2 separate counties.

The south has the infrastructure in place with taxpaying homeowners and businesses to continue to fund the great services this county provides; schools, law enforcement, fire and EMS, etc. It will be interesting to see how the new North county will fund anything with their NIMBY mentality and tax exempt population growing.
PabloCruz · April 1, 2020 at 10:25 am
The land preservation movement in Fauquier (and the northern piedmont) is a lie. It is not about parks, recreation, or other "good"
things that the PEC and other organizations like it, say they want for you. That is a ruse. The real motivation behind this movement is
lifestyle preservation and money (in the form of government payments, tax credits, reduced real estate taxes, reduced income taxes, and other forms of compensation)
in exchange for placing land in conservation easement or the selling of development rights for cash.
It's a wealth transfer program, supported by the board of supervisors, and over the years some members of the BOS have taken advantage of these programs.

The PDR program for example is so sacrosanct, that even as the BOS is slashing the budget due to Coronavirus,
the PDR program budget has been increased from $871,758 in 2020, to $875,290 for 2021. It is said that how you spend your money is a reflection of your values. Apparently,
the BOS places an extremely high value on the PDR program. If you read between the lines, it's really no mystery as to why.

The way we tax real estate in Fauquier is also a reflection of our values and the fact that as J Griffin pointed out, 1/4 of all the land in Fauquier is in easement and
subject to greatly reduced taxes.

For example, I looked at 4 pieces of property in and around the Marshall service district. All data comes from the Fauquier County Real estate online website,
and is available to the public.

Improvements are valued separately, only looking at the land in these examples.

Property 1 is a residential located in the Agricultural district, and not in easement.
18.3 acres valued for tax purposes at $333,000 or $18,199/acre.

Property 2 is a residential located also in Agricultural district, not in easement.
5.06 acres valued for tax purposes at $273,800 or $54,083/acre.

Property 3 is a residential located in the Marshall service district.
.24 acre valued for tax purposes at $115,000 or $460,000/acre.

Property 4 is a piece of land that is part of a large estate, most of which is in easement;
86.17 acres valued for tax purposes at $19,200 or $222/acre.

Because of the Covid-19 outbreak, we are facing a potentially catastrophic financial crisis, especially for the most vulnerable in our society. I find it particulary repugnant
that Fauquier County is increasing the amount of money for the PDR program, and that the author is making a play for resources, in the face of this crisis.

Jim Griffin · March 31, 2020 at 11:20 pm
The voluntary initiatives are wonderful, but doesn't "smart land-use policies" mean let a committee, even government, decide what you can do with your land?

What ends justify centralized planning and control of precious real property?

Doesn't the Virginia Republican creed start with "the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice"?

Values and taxes of all property are affected by the quarter of all land in the county that has been stripped (for now) of its full rights at taxpayer expense, both in acquisition costs and tax consequences.

The decision to place those rights in the hands of a committee will not end well. Future generations can and probably will change their mind, with a proven legal path to do so: Eminent Domain, which has been used to clear land for shopping malls. Or local airports.
AngryBob · March 31, 2020 at 2:03 pm
PEC, your goal is to cram the unwashed masses into postage stamp sized lots in the service districts while protecting the wealthy hobby farm owners on their sprawling estates. It's old money looking after old money.
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