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Policy Puzzle: Decoding Urban and Community Planning Laws – Preserving Virginia’s Forest and Farmland

Uncover the latest in Virginia’s urban and community planning policies in our Policy Puzzle series – Learn how new laws are addressing farmland and forest conservation, enhancing local tree preservation, and balancing development with environmental goals!

As we continue our Policy Puzzle series, we’ll decode the complexities of recent and potential state-level urban and community planning policy in the Commonwealth!

Throughout Virginia’s history, farming and forestry have been integral to the Commonwealth’s culture, providing economic, environmental, and social benefits. Over the years, Virginia has lost significant farmland and forests.

Between 2017 and 2022, Virginia lost more than 6.2 percent (488,000 acres) of its farmland and more than 1.4 percent (9,500 acres) of its forest and urban tree canopy over a similar period. Recently passed state legislation, however, is now attempting to reverse these trends by expanding local government authority to conserve trees during development and streamlining the process to preserve Virginia’s agricultural and forested land from future development.

Tree Conservation

Virginia currently allows localities to set up tree canopy banks and funds in their tree conservation and preservation ordinances.

Tree Conservation

When the minimum canopy requirements are not met due to engineering or environmental constraints, the property owner can contribute to a bank that plants trees on other pieces of land or pay out equivalent cash value (as determined by the locality) to a fund for tree giveaways, maintenance, and other programs.

Legislation passed in the 2024 General Assembly (HB459 and SB121) expands this authority, giving localities:

  1. Greater flexibility in how to use their tree fund:
    • Currently, the fund is limited to non-profits for planting on municipal property and only covers initial plantings. Changes to the conservation language would allow a locality to plant on both public and private property as well as use the funds to help maintain newly planted trees.
  2. Increased incentive mechanisms to preserve healthy mature trees on a site:
    • Localities can increase the canopy credits a property owner receives if they preserve high-value mature trees or stands of trees. Developers who provide a stand assessment before submitting a site plan and taking the necessary precautions to protect those trees during construction would receive additional canopy credit.

These changes are the result of a 2022 working group formed to make legislative recommendations regarding tree canopy that balanced environmental and development interests. The idea is to give localities the ability to encourage developers to conduct an assessment and conserve existing trees instead of planting younger replacement trees afterward.

Two bills that sought to enact a statewide expansion of some localities’ authority to set mandated tree conservation and replacement requirements on development were vetoed by the Governor after the 2024 General Assembly session.

Farmland Preservation

Some state policies work to preserve Virginia’s land as forestlands or farmlands. Newly passed legislation (HB 892/SB 616) shifts the state’s Office of Farmland Preservation from the Department of Agriculture’s control to the Department of Forestry, resulting in a new state office, the Office of Working Lands Conservation. This move consolidates state resources for and the management of conservation easements.

Farmland Preservation

Public entities in Virginia can hold conservation easements for both forested and agricultural lands under the Open Space Lands Act, however, before the enactment of HB 892/SB 616 the systems to obtain these were managed separately through different processes.

The former Office of Farmland Preservation, under the Department of Agriculture, obtained easements through the purchase of development rights, in which the government paid farmers who voluntarily placed an easement on their property. Under the new consolidated office, the Office of Working Lands Conservation can also compensate landowners for the easement in the form of a tax credit.

Balancing Land Uses

Discussions on housing projects, solar farms, data centers, and other developments are happening across the state and the nation. Localities face major decisions on what to build and where while balancing civic concerns, financial balance sheets, and, ultimately, public well-being. State policymakers are working to provide localities with the regulatory tools needed while also providing oversight.

One such continuing debate concerns balancing land preservation with the creation of clean energy infrastructure. Environmental groups and energy companies say Virginia must speed up its adoption of renewables to meet the mandates of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. Some localities have enacted, or have been considering enacting, limits on developing farm and forested land for solar.

A working group convened in response to highly debated 2022 legislation to work out the details of appropriate regulations for the siting of solar projects on farm and forest lands. Legislation was introduced in the 2024 General Assembly that would have limited Virginia localities’ ability to restrict the development of solar projects. Attesting to the continued debate of balancing land preservation with clean energy infrastructure creation, these bills were carried over to the 2025 legislative session.

These complex land use and policy decisions will be integral in shaping the future landscape of Virginia.

Contact Our Team

For more information on the complexities of recent and potential state-level urban and community planning policy in the Commonwealth or to receive expert support in planning your next project, be sure to Contact Our Team today!

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