Watchdog: State's Conservation Easement Program Needs Work

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — Virginia's state government watchdog says the commonwealth's land conservation easement program that offers participants tax breaks needs improvement.

Auditors with the Office of the State Inspector General found items like trash, old tires, inoperable vehicles and a manure storage area containing dead-cattle parts on properties with easements it inspected, the Culpeper Star-Exponent reported.

“Virginia provides tax credits up to $75 million per year for conservation easements and land donations,” Inspector General Michael Westfall said in a statement. “In effect, Virginia is paying for natural resource preservation through these tax credits.”

There's currently a $1 million tax credit value threshold for a Department of Conservation and Recreation quality review of an easement. Among the watchdog's recommendations was lowering that threshold.

But Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, told the newspaper the tax credit was a valuable tool and questioned the audit's conclusions and methodology.

“It is the most broad-based tool we have for sustaining our agricultural lands, preserving forests and protecting streams," Holmes said of the program.