Dragon Run Special Area Management Plan

Advisory Group

April 8, 2003




1.      Welcome


2.      Developing a Watershed Management Plan – Actions and Ideas


3.      Adjourn


Ø      Next meeting: Tuesday, May 13

Ø      Dragon Run Steering Committee meeting: Wednesday, May 14




David Birdsall (Resource Management Service, Inc.); Robert Gibson (King and Queen); Rick Allen, Robert Hudgins (Gloucester); Andy Lacatell (The Nature Conservancy); Pat Tyrrell (Tidewater Resource Conservation and Development Council); Mike Anderberg, Lorna Anderberg, Mary Ann Krenzke (Friends of Dragon Run); Jack Miller (Middlesex); Dorothy Miller (Essex); David Fuss (MPPDC)




The Land Use Policy Audit project got started with an introductory meeting on April 7. Paradigm Design is using feedback during the meeting to guide analysis of the land use policies in the four counties. The May SAMP Advisory Group meeting will be used as the first work session during which Paradigm Design will reveal their findings.


Friends of Dragon Run are holding an open house at Rose Hill in Essex County, the home of the Prue Davis and her mother, Mrs. Hundley. Tours of the main house and garden shed and hayrides down to the Dragon Run will be offered.


Andy Lacatell reported that Senators Allen and Warner and Representative Davis wrote letters of support for the proposed funding in the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program for acquisition and purchase of easements on working timberland in the Dragon Run watershed. Congress continues to debate the budget.


Developing a Watershed Management Plan


Conservation Easements


David Fuss described conservation easements as one of the voluntary tools that are available for land conservation. There are several options for conservation easements. First, landowners can donate permanent conservation easements and are eligible for federal and state tax benefits. Second, landowners can sell conservation easements such as in a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program. Third, easements can be either permanent or for a fixed term (e.g. 10, 20, or 30 years), although only permanent easements are eligible for tax benefits. Finally, there are a number of agricultural programs that offer reimbursement for easements (e.g. Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) when landowners take cropland out of production or institute Best Management Practices (BMPs).


It was noted that conservation easements are potentially complementary to zoning ordinance regulations because they can help to attain the goals of the Comprehensive Plan (e.g. preserve open space). Local governments could provide an endorsement for the concept of using conservation easements to preserve open space.


There was discussion of whether the SAMP and watershed management plan should provide the “how” for conservation easements.  There were conflicting views about conservation easements. Some think that they should definitely be used, while others think that they are not for everybody.


One problematic issue about conservation easements was property taxes. The question was raised as to what happens when properties are reassessed. Who pays the taxes and the rising costs associated with reassessments?


Again, a distinction was made between the donation of a conservation easement and the purchase of development rights. When donating a conservation easement, a landowner voluntarily extinguishes the development rights attached to the property. When development rights are purchased through an easement program, an entity (e.g. local government) actually owns the development rights.


Mr. Miller indicated that he would check with the Middlesex County Commissioner of the Revenue about how easements are valued, since Middlesex is undertaking a reassessment right now. Counties are required to reassess property at least every four years. The Code of Virginia requires localities to acknowledge the value of a conservation easement.


It was noted that the purchase of an easement could be a tool for splitting cash among heirs instead of needing to sell land to pay estate taxes and split the estate.


Pat Tyrrell explained the work the Tidewater RC&D’s Farmland Preservation Steering Committee chaired by Prue Davis. Market forces have put increasing pressure on farmers and they need a large agricultural land base to remain viable. Encroaching development puts pressure on farming because of higher land values, increasing pressure to sell the land, and a misunderstanding of farming and farming practices. Farmers need tools to keep their land so that they can remain viable. Often, farmers cannot donate easements, but they may be interested in programs for purchasing easements. There are also a number of programs, for example in the Farm Bill and the Highway Bill, that offer purchase of easements. It was noted that another trend is going to ever-larger farms requiring ever an ever-larger land base to remain viable.


Mr. Gibson indicated that he was personally not comfortable with the idea of conservation easements being “forever.” Maybe other options are appropriate for some people who are not sure that they want to limit their future options permanently.


Ms. Krenzke asked where information on this topic might be found. Mr. Lacatell provided some handouts for attendees. He highlighted a Conservation Forestry easement in southwestern Virginia where The Nature Conservancy (TNC) holds an easement in exchange for managing the timber in sustainable fashion. TNC then pays 4% on the value of the timber to the landowner. The timber is reassessed every ten years. The landowner extinguishes the development rights for the term of the easement (e.g. 10 years). It was noted that this could be a good option for someone who is at retirement age because it provides a steady stream of income. This is similar to timber leases offered by timber companies.


Mr. Hudgins indicated that he did not see how easements would benefit him as a landowner. He does not want to sell or develop his land. The primary problem is greed and the primary agent for greed is land development. Land developers have buying power. Protecting the Dragon Run is the goal and land ownership is the key. For example, hunt clubs should pool their money and buy land. However, even conservation-minded landowners want something in return for donating/selling an easement. They need some insurance on their investment of land (e.g. emergencies). Zoning can be a tool for land conservation (e.g. cluster zoning). If easements save one parcel of land, then it would be worth using them as one of the tools to preserve the land and traditional land uses. It was noted that often heirs to family land don’t have an interest in the land, but want to split their share of the estate. Easements are designed to determine the outcome of the future. For example, an easement on a 150-foot buffer won’t change, but the owner can keep the development rights on the rest of the parcel as insurance for emergency situations.


Cluster Zoning


Upon request from Anne Ducey-Ortiz of Gloucester, David Fuss brought up the idea of cluster zoning that is designed to address the idea the Robert Hudgins brought up about developing part of a parcel and leaving the rest of the parcel undeveloped. In cluster zoning, the same number of parcels allowed under existing zoning could be developed. However, these parcels will be allowed at a higher density and limited to only part of the original parcel. The remainder of the parcel will remain in its existing use as open space.


To illustrate the point, Mr. Fuss distributed a handout from Final Report of the Southern Watershed Area Rural Area Preservation Program at the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. The diagram illustrated that a 600-acre parcel could be subdivided into 40 15-acre lots. In cluster zoning, the same 600-acre parcel would allow 40 homes on 0.75-acre lots, while the remaining 95% of the original parcel is left in open space. This area could continue to be farmed or timbered, or it could be more of a park-like setting, usually under conservation easement.


It was noted that this approach could have conflicts with other requirements in zoning or subdivision ordinances. It was also noted that people actually like the idea of conservation subdivision, as opposed to more conventional development styles.


Mr. Fuss asked the group to give the idea some consideration.




Mr. Fuss also brought up the idea of access framed within the context of private property rights versus publicly owned waters. Indeed, there are frustrations from both landowners and visitors/recreationists alike. Landowners are concerned about trespassing and damage to their property. Visitors are frustrated at the limited public access in the watershed. This represents a use conflict.


Mr. Hudgins noted that most landowners are willing to grant access if permission is sought in advance. On the other hand, they don’t want too much access. Mr. Anderberg noted that access is somewhat self-regulating due to the difficult conditions that exist (e.g. obstacles, navigating).


One alternative is to provide better land-based access. Friends of Dragon Run has developed a short 200-yd trail equipped with benches from which to view recently installed nesting boxes for prothonotary warblers. This site is listed on the VA Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries Birding and Wildlife Trail. Also, the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve now owns a 120-acre parcel that will offer managed access for educational and research purposes.


The group felt that there is a need for managed access, but they did not want any public boat ramps. Hazards exist between Rt. 603 and U.S. 17 and should be advertised as potentially dangerous. Also, membership in hunt clubs has been suggested as an idea for gaining access. In general, limited access should prevail.




David handed out a draft outline and action plans for a watershed management plan for review. The next SAMP Advisory Group meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 13 from 6-9 PM and will serve as the first work session for the land use policy audit with the land use consultant. The next Dragon Run Steering Committee will be held on Wednesday, May 14 at 7:30 PM. The meeting was adjourned.