Sean Gorman
By Sean Gorman November 25, 2013

Results fall far short

On Earth Day 2009, gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell announced a "bold pledge" to protect hundreds of thousands of acres from development.

He issued a press release lauding the land conservation efforts of then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford.

"As our population increases and land in Virginia is developed at a rate of roughly 60,000 acres a year, it is important we continue this bipartisan conservation effort," McDonnell wrote.  "As governor, I will do so by ensuring that we conserve another 400,000 acres by the conclusion of my term in January 2014."

We first examined McDonnell's progress on this pledge more than two years ago and found the governor was off to a slow start. Records from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation showed the state had protected 62,019 acres during the first 18 months of McDonnell's  administration, which began in January 2010. We rated the promise "In the Works" and said we'd revisit it before McDonnell left office.

The update is that McDonnell, with less than two months remaining to his governorship, is not even halfway to filling his 400,000-acre preservation vow.

The latest tally on the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's website shows that the McDonnell administration had protected 164,433 acres through Sept. 16, 2013.

Taylor Keeney, a spokeswoman for the governor, emailed us Nov. 15 that the total has risen to 171,331 acres and that the closure of some outstanding land deals could add another 47,630 acres before McDonnell leaves office Jan. 11.

If those contracts are signed while he's governor, 218,961 acres would be conserved under McDonnell.

Keeney acknowledged that the 400,000-acre pledge hit a snag. She said the tight economy made a major conservation incentive -- Virginia's Land Preservation Tax Credit -- less attractive to landowners. The program provides up to $100 million annually in tax credits for landowners who donate their property, or give the state an easement to it, for conservation. The tax break amounts to 40 percent of the appraised value of the land.

Nikki Rovner, director of state government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Virginia, said the sluggish economy depressed land values and left landowners less eager to cash in on the tax credits.

Rovner and Heather Richards, vice president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, a Warrenton-based conservation organization, said McDonnell's 400,000-acre goal is no longer attainable.

"Barring acres just falling wholesale from the sky, that's just not going to happen," Richards said.

For comparison, here are the conservation tallies of other Virginia governors this century, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation:

*Kaine preserved 431,390 acres;

*Mark Warner, 210,110 acres;

*Jim Gilmore, 96,427 acres.

No doubt, McDonnell's options as governor have been limited by a tight economy. But this could have been foreseen; on the day McDonnell made his pledge to conserve 400,000 acres, the nation was in the thick of the Great Recession. So we rate this a Promise Broken.

Editors note: The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation tallies the land conserved by the state. Our initial posting of this article misidentified the department.

Sean Gorman
By Sean Gorman September 16, 2011

A lot of ground to make up on conservation

During his 2009 gubernatorial campaign, Bob McDonnell used Earth Day as a backdrop to bolster his conservation credentials by issuing a news release vowing to preserve swaths of land.

He said that under former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine and House Speaker Bill Howell, the state preserved some 400,000 acres in the state.

"As our population increases, and land is developed in Virginia at a rate of 60,000 acres a year, it is important we continue this bipartisan conservation effort,” McDonnell said. "As governor, I will do so by ensuring we conserve another 400,000 acres by the conclusion of my term in January 2014.”

McDonnell, a Republican, has been in the governor's mansion for more than a year and a half now. So how far has the governor come to protecting those 400,000 acres?

The short answer is not very far.

At a June 27, 2011 press briefing, McDonnell"s natural resources secretary, Doug Domenech,  acknowledged to reporters that the administration had fallen behind in their efforts to meet that goal.

Virginia Department of Land Conservation figures from July 15 -- the latest available -- show the state had 62,019 acres of land. If the preservation continues at that pace for the rest of his term, the state will preserve less than half of the 400,000 acres McDonnell has promised to protect.

Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, noted some progress has been made toward reaching the administration"s goal, but he acknowledged conservation efforts have fallen short of expectations.

Given the sluggish economy, Caldwell said the governor has decided to conserve the state's financial resources and not use taxpayer money for land purchases. Instead the state is relying on voluntary conservation easements to protect parcels, he said. Through those easements, a landowner signs over development rights.

"This requires a willing land owner interested in taking advantage of Virginia's tax credit program based on the appraised value of the land,” Caldwell said. "Since appraisals are down due to the slump of the real estate market, fewer land owners are currently interested in taking advantage of the program.”

Despite the slow pace of conservation, the governor's goal is still to preserve the full 400,000 acres during his term, Caldwell said.

But the clock is ticking and there's a lot of ground to make up. At this point we're listing this promise as In the Works.

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