Governor Bob McDonnell announced today that one of the largest waterfront farms along the lower tidal Rappahannock River has been permanently protected from development by a conservation easement produced through a partnership of the landowner, Minnie K. Burch, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
"The 640-acre tract will protect more than seven miles of shoreline on the Rappahannock River from future development," said Governor McDonnell. "This easement is part of our efforts to protect more open space, as well as working farms and forests. To date, we have conserved more than 114,100 acres since 2010."
The property contains some of the most highly productive farmland in the region and the easement will ensure that the farm will be permanently available for production. The easement protects the property's prime soils and shoreline by restricting future development. The land can never be divided and there are limits on the size and number of buildings and structures. In addition, the landowner will follow a conservation plan which will conserve the soil and water quality through farming practices such as no-till.
Mrs. Burch, who grew up working on the farm along with her four siblings, said, "A dear friend told me about conservation easements. She knew what the farm meant to me and how I never wanted to see it sold or developed. I decided that a conservation easement was just the tool I needed to save the farm."
"Large waterfront farms are in high demand for residential development throughout the tidal Chesapeake Bay region," said VOF Executive Director Bob Lee. "The vast scenic shoreline and easy access location of Weeks Farm made it ripe for development."
VOF worked with NRCS to enroll the land in the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), which provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses. To purchase the development rights and place the easement on the farm, NRCS provided 47 percent of the funding through FRPP, VOF provided 16 percent through its Open Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund, and the remaining 37 percent was donated by Mrs. Burch to the Commonwealth, for which she will receive state and federal tax benefits. VOF's contribution was made possible thanks to funding approved by Governor McDonnell for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation, which is administered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and provides much of the funding for the Open Space Lands Preservation Trust Fund."
"I congratulate Mrs. Burch, VOF, and NRCS for working together to permanently preserve the historic Weeks Farm," said Todd P. Haymore, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. "In addition to the environmental benefits that they provide, working farmlands produce jobs and opportunities for our rural areas, create products for marketplaces, and generate tax revenue for localities. I encourage landowners who are interested in preserving their working lands to contact organizations like the Virginia Outdoors Foundations as well as the Department of Forestry and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to explore available conservation options in the Commonwealth."
The seven miles of tidal shoreline will be protected with 100-foot riparian buffers that will not only help the water quality of the river, but also provide valuable continuous habitat for eagles and other wildlife. Combined with a late 2011 recordation of another 178-acre VOF easement, the protection of Weeks Farm makes a total of 818 acres preserved along the shorelines of Harry George Creek and the Rappahannock River.
"This part of Middlesex County experiences a lot of development pressure even in this economy, and the property could have been a forced sale out of the family for a large-lot waterfront community," says VOF's Estie Thomas, who managed the project for approximately five years from conception to completion. "Instead of losing yet another family farm, we have saved the farm for Mrs. Burch and future farmers in the region."