James City supervisors reverse course on conservation grant

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JAMES CITY – The Board of Supervisors reversed a March decision to reject state grant money designed to preserve farmland, instead voting 4-1 Tuesday night to accept the reimbursement. Chair Mary Jones remained opposed.


Earlier this year James City was offered close to $150,000 in matching funds for the Purchase of Development Rights, a grant the county has accepted annually for a number of years.


The supervisors turned the money down by a 3-2 margin in March, with Jones, Mike Hipple and Kevin Onizuk united against accepting the money.


They said at the time that they support the PDR program, which helps farmers keep their land in production by buying voluntary conservation easements. But they were concerned about county finances and, in Jones’ case, felt that the program has been successful and the county does not need to purchase more.


Supervisor John McGlennon resurrected the issue Tuesday night, noting that the grant applies to the current fiscal year, not the one beginning in July. So it would reimburse the county for up to half of the money it has already spent, not future purchases.


Onizuk said his view had changed since March, given that the grant reimburses the county.


“There’s no strings attached,” he said.


The county still does have $750,000 remaining for PDR and greenspace purchases, and the supervisors have been considering some small purchases in closed session, he said. He added that citizens of his district clearly support preservation.


And he drew on former president Ronald Reagan, quoting, “What is a conservative after all but one who conserves?”


Hipple joined Onizuk. “I believe in preserving land,” he said. “I believe in taking care of land. I’ve always been that way.”


But he had reservations, he said, and would be reluctant to add new money to the conservation programs without a voter referendum.


“I think we have enough land set aside in James City County as we sit right now,” he said, but acknowledged that the $750,000 was earmarked many years ago.


Jones remained unswayed. “I think we’ve spent enough taxpayer money paying other property owners not to develop their property,” she said.


“I absolutely care about the environment. I don’t want it to be misconstrued that I don’t,” she said later in the discussion. “It doesn’t need to be at the collective’s expense.”


The PDR program allows landowners to sell the development potential of their land, maintaining ownership and use of the property.


Basically, the state money, which is appropriated annually by the General Assembly to the Office of Farmland Preservation, helps farmers fight the temptation of selling their land for development.


James City’s program has been in place since 2001 and currently has eight easements on 701 acres, program administrator Ed Overton said recently.



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