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Region's landowners protect 5,287 acres in 2020
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Region's landowners protect 5,287 acres in 2020

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COVID-19 didn’t dent the pace of land preservation in the northern Piedmont last year, the region’s largest conservation groups says.

In 2020, landowners joined with land trusts and public agencies to protect 5,287 acres in Culpeper, Orange, Madison, Albemarle, Clarke, Fauquier, Greene, Loudoun and Rappahannock counties, the Piedmont Environmental Council reported.

The year’s 47 new conservation easements mean that 426,657 acres are now protected in the PEC’s nine-county region. That amounts to nearly 20 percent of the region’s land area. It is more than twice the size of Shenandoah National Park.

“Despite a pandemic year when folks were understandably cautious about the personal interactions required during the easement process, the number of easement transactions remained steady and demonstrate the commitment of local landowners to preserve the integrity of the landscape as a whole and to protect water resources and scenic character,” PEC President Chris Miller said in a statement.

2020’s new acreage includes all of the region’s easements held collectively by PEC, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, state agencies, local governments and other land trusts. Download a conservation map of the entire region here.

“Every acre of protected land ... helps prevent water pollution, preserve natural flood controls, promote groundwater recharge, and support local agriculture and carbon sequestration,” Miller said.

In 2020, PEC and its partners preserved 140 acres in Madison, 75 acres in Greene, 62 acres in Rappahannock, 23 acres in Clarke, 800 acres in Fauquier, 2,028 acres in Albemarle and 2,159 acres in Loudoun, but none in Culpeper or Orange, the council said.

Loudoun led the region, with 21 landowners donating conservation easements.

“To see so many individual properties protected within one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties is exciting,” said Mike Kane, PEC’s conservation director. “We hope that Loudoun County’s pursuit of programs that encourage conservation easements, including its easement assistance program and purchase of development rights program, will spur additional land protections here.”

In Loudoun just west of Lucketts on the Catoctin Mountains, Heidi Seibentritt and her siblings placed their late parents’ 29 acres under easement with PEC.

“With 20 acres of forest surrounding two headwater streams, the family’s decision to conserve the land is a great example of the outsized public benefits of conservation,” Kane said. “They are protecting streams where they begin, helping to give the streams a good clean start as they flow ... across dozens of properties on their way to the Potomac River.”

The Seibentritt family’s easement is especially important because it shields streams that feed downstream lands with sensitive limestone geology where water pollution can be a hazard to people and livestock, he said.

2020’s largest single conservation easement was 1,150 acres in Albemarle’s Southern Rural Historic District, near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland. Held by the Albemarle Conservation Easement Authority, the easement protects the property next to the historic and previously conserved Morven Farm from development for 74 dwellings.

The Southern Rural Historic District tract, along with 194 acres at Mountain Grove that protects a great example of a Federal-style Palladian house dating to 1804, were among 12 properties conserving 2,028 acres in Albemarle last year, the council said.

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“In our region and throughout the commonwealth, we are fortunate to have a history of state and local leaders who understand the critical value of open space and have implemented incentives and programs that assist landowners with the cost of donating conservation easements,” Kane said. “The Piedmont Environmental Council is here and happy to educate and guide landowners about land conservation options and benefits.”

County-by-county maps detailing conservation easement totals and easements added in 2020 in the Piedmont Environmental Council region can be downloaded here.

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a public agency or a nonprofit conservation group, such as The Piedmont Environmental Council, PEC said.

By limiting development, easements protect the land’s natural, scenic and cultural resources to benefit the public. Landowners who donate easements may be eligible to receive tax benefits for their charitable contribution, the council said.

In aggregate over decades, PEC said that conservation easements in its nine counties have protected about:

– 10,431 acres of wetlands.

– 201,461 acres of forests.

– 30,585 acres of Civil War battlefields.

– 132,949 acres in historic districts.

– 1,766 miles of streams.

– 127,117 acres in the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail.

– 201,496 acres of prime farmland soils.

– 26,836 acres adjacent to scenic rivers, and

– 111,935 acres along scenic byways.

Since 1972, the Piedmont Environmental Council has protected the natural resources, rural economy, history and beauty of the Virginia Piedmont. Learn more about the tax-deductible nonprofit, an accredited land trust, at pecva.org.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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