A widely acclaimed James City County land conservation program will take an indefinite pause when all funds in its account are exhausted, county staff said.
The Purchase of Development Rights program, which compensates landowners who volunteer to have their acres permanently preserved from development, cannot continue after funds are spent because the county’s ability to borrow on a voter-approved bond expired late last year.
The Board of Supervisors did not take action on purchasing another bond before borrowing authority expired Nov. 7, 2015, effectively freezing the program until voters choose to revive it through another referendum, County Administrator Bryan Hill said.
“It’s not the end of PDR,” Board Chairman Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said. “It’s basically a pause so we can get our house in order and get James City County in order.”
Hipple said the county needs complete its strategic plan and reduce its debt – “the more debt we can get rid of and pay down, the stronger we’ll be,” he said – before it can ask residents to support a bond purchase or contribute any portion of their tax dollars to the PDR program.
In 2005 a $20 million bond for the program was supported by 78 percent of residents who voted on a land conservation referendum question. The county had authority to borrow on the bond for eight years, in accordance with state code, and in 2013 requested and received a two-year extension.
The program was originally funded by $1 million in seed money in 2001 and supplemented in future years by a dedicated penny from every $1,000 of assessed real estate taxes. The allocation ended in Fiscal Year 2011 due to the recession and county-wide spending cuts.
The voter-approved bond was never borrowed on, according to county staff.
Hipple said he believes PDR is worth keeping, as it promotes a balance between land that is developed and land that is conserved, but said it could be a “year or two” before the board proposes a referendum for a bond or a dedicated allocation for the program.
Board Vice Chairman John McGlennon (Roberts) said voters may be interested in funding the program sooner, potentially in the next year.
“Our surveys of the public have demonstrated a very strong level of support for conservation easements and the purchase of development rights and green spaces,” McGlennon said. “It’ll be up to the voters to tell us whether it’s a valuable investment of tax dollars.”
The PDR program was a campaign issue during last year’s election and a policy praised by many as former Stonehouse representative Jim Kennedy’s legacy. It first came to James City County in 2001 and has since protected 701.298 acres at a cost of $3,512,781.
Kennedy said he advocated for establishing a PDR program when he ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and worked with fellow board members and county staff to get it up and running.
He said he was sad to see the program take a pause, but noted population trends and property values have fluctuated since PDR started and when the board ended the penny allocation, it realized funding PDR with taxpayer dollars satisfied more of “want” rather than a “need.”
“We didn’t close the PDR program. At some point it can be restarted,” Kennedy said. “If you have a board that is more sensitive to [land conservation] and economic times show you can do it again, you can do it.”
During its Nov. 24 work session, the Board of Supervisors approved two PDR purchases, valued at $570,000 and $175,000. It then committed to use the remaining balance for improvements at the Jamestown Beach Event Park area, which includes the old campgrounds and surrounding amenities like the James City County Marina, according to county staff.
Hipple said he considered the Jamestown Beach commitment a land conservation initiative, as it would give the county an opportunity to “enhance” the property and “make it more user-friendly.”
There is currently $1,031,535 in the PDR account, a total that does not include the two November PDR purchases or a $307,889 matching reimbursement grant awarded by the state Dec. 30, according to county staff.
Over eight years, James City County has been awarded $1,554,270.96 in matching reimbursement grants from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to support the program. It has been reimbursed a total of $616,381.