Rich Collins led a contingent of 20 University of Virginia graduate students down a rocky path into the middle of a bucolic 154-acre field in Albemarle County.
“Ooh! Look!” exclaimed Collins, a UVa professor of urban and environmental planning. “There’s a pair of nesting geese.”
A few moments later, UVa history professor Stephen Levine strolled up, leading his nervous donkey Neftu.
“She’s taking her time,” said Levine, the property’s owner. “This is all new for her.”
The grad students are part of Collins’ class on the legal aspects of planning. They spent Monday morning in Levine’s field — located at a convergence of the north and south forks of the Rivanna River — to learn about how conservation easements are protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of rural countryside across Virginia.
“It’s not just rural protection we’re after,” said Collins, an outspoken critic of runaway development. “We’re after better places to live.”
Conservation easements are voluntary agreements that protect land from development. Essentially, a property owner donates the property’s development rights to a nonprofit or government entity and receives federal and state tax breaks in return.
Virginians who donate land that will be protected in perpetuity are allowed a tax credit for 50 percent of the land’s fair market value. The tax credits can be used to offset taxes for up to five years or sold off for cash.
For the general public, conservation easements provide scenic beauty and quality of life. In a sense, the public pays for them via forgone tax revenue.
The easements are proving to be an increasingly popular tool throughout Virginia and in the Charlottesville region for preserving rural character, environment and culture. As many of his students intend to eventually work as municipal planners, Collins wanted them to gain insight into how conservation easements work.
“It’s basically a gift to the general public,” Collins told them. “Think of it like donating a piece of artwork to a university.”
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has made land preservation a cornerstone of his administration. Since he assumed office two years ago, 233,336 acres have been preserved. His goal is for the state to reach 400,000 acres by the end of his term.
“Pretty good, isn’t it?” said Sarah Richardson, land conservation coordinator with the office of land conservation in the Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation.
In the Rivanna watershed, which includes major portions of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Greene, at least 55,000 acres have been preserved under conservation easements.
The property that was visited by Collins’ class Monday is a flood plain called Forks of the Rivanna. The Nature Conservancy bought it in 2001 with money from a state watershed protection fund and obtained a conservation easement. The organization went to work to repair its streams, which had been damaged by the property’s years as a cornfield.
Six years ago, the Dave Matthews Band decided to plant enough trees to offset the carbon emissions of the band’s tour that year. One site that received the trees was the Forks of the Rivanna property.
In 2006, a couple from Minnesota bought the land from the Nature Conservancy. They intended to build a house on the site, while the remainder of the property was preserved. However, the couple decided to abandon their plans and sold the property to their neighbors, the Levines, for $480,000 last summer. Some of Levine’s friends chipped in, seeing the property’s preservation as a worthy cause akin to donating to a land conservation nonprofit such as the Nature Conservancy.
The property will stay under its conservation easement, despite the ownership change. Levine intends to add another conservation easement to ensure that no house is ever built on the property.
“A salient issue of our time is the loss of resources and overpopulation,” Levine said. “We felt like we had to do this.”