Throughout James City County, rolling hills carry residents and visitors alike through swatches of woods hung with vines, along the outskirts of farm fields and to sandy beaches at the edge of the James River.
Natural features are part of the county’s character, and something some residents vocally try to protect.
Despite boasting some large housing developments, the county also has hundreds of properties participating in various programs aimed at preserving the its rural nature.
And county staff is evaluating how to improve those programs to help balance development with its heritage.
“It’s absolutely for keeping land rural, but it ties it much more back to the fact that the commonwealth is trying to conserve and protect agricultural land for the production of food, or other forestal products,” Planning Director Paul Holt said of one county conservation program.
Those programs include open space easements, the green space program, agricultural and forestal districts, purchase of development rights and land use tax exemptions.
In some programs, the county pays landowners for the land or the development rights. In other programs, the county pays nothing, but the landowner is able to gain tax relief by using their land for agricultural or forestal purposes.
Landowners in James City County collectively save $1.09 million in real estate taxes annually through land use tax exemptions for agricultural and forestal land, said Jon Fountain, real estate assessments director.
Agricultural and forestal districts
On Wednesday, the Planning Commission voted to recommend approval for five parcels to become agricultural and forestal districts.
Holt said some of those requests were prompted by a mass renewal for some agricultural and forestal district properties last October.
There are currently 17,940.07 acres of land designated as Agricultural and Forestal Districts, totaling about 20.1 percent of the county’s total land area, said Ellen Cook, principal planner.
AFDs have existed in the county since 1986. Most properties need to renew their designation as a district every four years, but some designations can last longer.
Holt said James City County staff are now working together to find a way to lay out all options a landowner has for preserving their land, beyond the AFDs.
“Most of the effort is on the customer service side to group those options together in a way for a property owner so they can see all at once what’s in their toolbox,” Holt said.
The Purchase of Development Rights program
One program aimed at preserving open green space was put on “pause” several years ago, but James City County staff have begun a review to see if it can be brought back.
Jason Purse, James City County assistant county administrator, said the Board of Supervisors showed a possible interest in rejuvenating the Purchase of Development Rights program last summer.
Through the program, the county pays a landowner for them to give up their right to develop the land. About 12 or 13 properties, totaling more than 700 acres, were bought solely using the Purchase of Development Rights program.
In 2016, the Board of Supervisors decided to let the county Purchase of Development Rights fund exhaust itself. The account was originally funded in part by allocating some real estate tax revenue each year to the program.
That allocation ended in 2011.
The county hasn’t actively pursued adding new parcels to the program, so there is still about $360,000 in the account, Purse said. Properties interested in having their development rights purchased must be approved by a committee and local governing bodies
The purchase of development rights program could become more active if the Board of Supervisors decides to move forward with finding a source of funding, but with some new guidelines or processes, Purse said.
Purse, like Holt, hopes possibly bringing the program back will present an opportunity to revamp the way the county showcases its options for land conservation.
Land use taxation
Richard Bradshaw, commissioner of the revenue for James City County, said the county has between 275 and 300 parcels that are receiving lower property assessments through the land use program.
The statewide land use program encourages landowners to use their property for agricultural and forestal purposes. Properties in the program are assessed at a lower value, and therefore owners pay less in taxes.
The owner must meet certain guidelines and document the land’s use and reapply annually to be a part of the program.
Agricultural and forestal district parcels are able to join the land use program. Properties not designated as AFDs can also take advantage of land use.
The difference between the current tax revenue and what would be collected if the land use program did not exist is nearly $1.09 million, Fountain said.
If a landowner wants to take their property out of land use, they must pay the current year’s full market value in taxes, as well as rollback taxes — with interest — for the previous five years.
“It is a penalty for changing it,” Bradshaw said.
Although farming in James City County has slowly declined, Bradshaw said he hasn’t seen a sharp downturn in the number of parcels in the land use program.
“There is a bit of turnover, but not a great deal,” Bradshaw said. “The agricultural and forestal districts do help keep that turnover down.”