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Districts offer farmers protection

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Wythe County has benefitted from agricultural and forestal districts, which Carroll County is considering as a way to protect land from development.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE  —  Ag and forestal districts in Wythe County have managed to hold off town annexations and a transmission power line in the 30 years they’ve existed, said one participant.
Dairy farmer Eric Crowgey spoke to a roomful of about 40 people interested in learning about ag and forestal districts in Carroll County on Jan. 6. He shared history, insight and tips about the voluntary protection for rural land in Wythe County.
Virginia began allowing special districts to protect rural land for agricultural and timber products in 1977. Just two years later, Crowgey’s father and neighbor found motivation to create one of the first such districts in the state.
Wytheville had just finished annexing to the Crowgey’s family farm fence, he recalled. When services like public water and sewer come to rural areas, subdivisions follow.
“They haven’t annexed again and that was our whole purpose,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in town.... we saw the subdivisions coming and the people who follow that.”
The same was true when Wythe farmers got wind of a big Appalachian Power transmission line proposed for their section of the county.
The farmers jumped in and started the processes of creating an ag-forestal district before the powerline was installed.
“And guess what APCo did?” Crowgey said. “They moved it. They didn’t want to mess with those fellas.”
Instead, the powerline got moved closer to the Wythe-Pulaski border.
Being proactive and creating an ag-forest district, like 15 farmers with 1,500 acres in Cana are doing, is a much better situation than getting "behind the 8 ball," he said. Thirty years after their founding in Wythe, four ag and forestal districts protect nearly 9,000 acres.
Interest in ag-forestal districts have spread beyond southern Carroll, said Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Webb Flowers.
“There are other groups in Carroll County that are interested in ag and forestal districts,” he said. “The Cana group is the test group to get ag and forestal districts accepted and approved in Carroll County.”
He expects it will go smoother for other groups that submit applications for ag-forestal district in the future.
The prospects for Carroll’s first district getting approved by the board of supervisors are good, based on the track record of such proposals in Virginia.
“I don’t believe there’s been a single board of supervisors in the state of Virginia that have rejected an application,” the Extension agent said.
As a voluntary program that the farmers choose on their own, the Wythe supervisors have been predisposed to go along with these requests, Crowgey agreed.
To be approved by state code, the ag and forestal district has to have a minimum core of 200 acres, Flowers said. Other farmers up to a mile away may also participate after the minimum is reached.
Benefits for landowners include: reassurance that land use taxation will continue; some limited protection from eminent domain and protection from nuisance measures that involve farming.
Ag and forestal districts basically keep development out of productive land.
“Landowners agree not to subdivide their land to a more intensive non-agricultural use during the term of the district...” Flowers read in a presentation. “The government agrees to shield the district from development pressure.”
Landowners have the ability to put family homes on their property, but a residential subdivision would not be allowed, Flowers added.
Among other things, an ag-forestal district must have a proposed term of four or 10 years, they said. Crowgey recommended any district in Carroll opt for 10 years, as the shorter term rolls around too fast and a fee will apply for each renewal.
Districts may petition to add or remove acreage during the renewal period, Crowgey said. There are reasons to remove land during the district’s term, which may include death of the landowner or economic hardship.
Owners may also sell the property or a portion of it at any time.
Other localities with ag-forestal districts have forms for people buying homes within the district to sign, Flowers said. That’s part of the protection of farmers against nuisance claims on agricultural practices.
While it may not keep those bothered by ag practices from suing, the documentation shows that home buyers know they are moving into an area with agricultural pursuits, the Extension agent said.
In the end, governments hope to protect agricultural land and forests so the country won’t have to import food and timber from other countries, he said.
The future for ag-forest districts look favorable, Flowers said. “I believe there’s an opportunity here that could prove very successful and my hope is that this is successful and that we continue to farm.”