When I speak of land conservation in Northern Virginia, I often hear the comment that “Virginia is a property rights state” as if land conservation and the rights of landowners are somehow incompatible. A recent report by the Commonwealth’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC), entitled “Dedicated Revenue Sources for Land Conservation in Virginia,” demonstrates the lack of any such conflict.
While it is true that section 10.1-1701 of the Code of Virginia prohibits all public bodies in the Commonwealth from using the power of eminent domain to conserve land, the Commonwealth has a long history of voluntary land conservation. In fact, such efforts have led to the conservation of approximately 3.8 million acres, or about 15 percent of Virginia’s total acreage. This is a remarkable achievement when you consider that fewer than 100 acres had been conserved in the entire State prior to 1900.
Virginia’s approach to land conservation stems from Article XI Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia which establishes the following policy for the Commonwealth:
“Further, it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.”
Of course, implementing this policy through voluntary means takes money, either in the form of foregone income taxes (in the case of conservation easements) or the direct expenditure of taxpayer dollars (in the case of land acquisition). Because a willing seller is necessary for both of these tools to be effective, these programs are not cheap. For example, in the last decade alone, the Commonwealth spent approximately $1 billion for land conservation.
As would be expected for such a small area, Arlington County’s numbers are no match for those of the Commonwealth. According to the JLARC Report, Arlington has conserved 1,113 acres or 6.69 percent of its total land base. Arlington can do better, of course, but only if we are willing to commit the necessary financial resources to make it happen.
In any event, the next time you take a long plane ride across our Commonwealth, look down upon Virginia with new eyes. Approximately 15 percent of what you see below you is conserved lands. And we can all take pride in that.
Mike Nardolilli serves as President of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, President of the Arlington Outdoor Lab, and as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.