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As Northern Virginia urbanizes, conservation trust tries new approaches

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

By Brian Trompeter, Sun Gazette Newspapers

Fresh off celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT), the group’s leaders are seeking new ways to preserve land as development in the region accelerates.

“There’s a lot of green space, but we know where it’s going,” said NVCT board member and founder Richard Bliss. “People want to get a return on their investment. We’re not anti-development. We try to be a counterbalance.”

Land conservation benefits the environment, air, water and people’s mental health, Bliss said.

Bliss founded NVCT a quarter-century ago while serving on the Fairfax County Park Authority’s board of directors. The organization owns about 20 properties and has secured permanent conservation easements on 100 others.

The largest site is a 400-acre easement in Haymarket, Leopold’s Preserve, which NVCT obtained with the help of a developer. In highly developed areas such as Arlington and Alexandria, the conservation trust works to preserve parcels as small as a half-acre. Executive Director Alan Rowsome estimates the organization conserves 6 to 8 acres annually in Fairfax and Arlington counties.

Most of those sites have been donated to NVCT in exchange for tax credits and lower estate taxes. NVCT leaders’ job is to persuade property owners that donating their land is in the public’s interest.

This can prove difficult, given Northern Virginia’s high land values. Many people live in the Washington area temporarily and do not have deep roots here; others face family pressures regarding their inheritances, Bliss said.

NVCT, with its eight-member staff, is the region’s only accredited land trust, Rowsome said.

The organization has been active in the Sun Gazette’s readership area. NVCT in July 2011 obtained a conservation easement for the former Oakton Trolley Station, which now is a three-story private residence.

In McLean, NVCT enforces the conservation easement at Salona and monitors efforts by local sports groups to add playing fields in the site’s meadow, which likely would require a parking area.

The organization also is looking for conservation opportunities at Langley Fork Park in McLean, which FCPA hopes to acquire from the National Park Service in exchange for the nearby county-owned Langley Oak Park. That land swap has been in the works for years, but has not been finalized.

NVCT also sees potential at Claude Moore Farm in McLean, likewise owned by the National Park Service. That agency still is determining the site’s future, after last year ordering the park’s friends group to cease operations, following contractual disagreements.

The availability of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data makes it possible for NVCT leaders to choose their next targets carefully, Rowsome said.

“We know better now then ever before where we ought to be spending our time,” he said. “We need to build bridges with residents.”

Not literal bridges, however. NVCT is leery of proposals, which have become more strident in recent weeks after a series of truck crashes, to build a new Potomac River crossing north of the American Legion Bridge.

“It would be a very hard sell for us,” Rowsome said. “It is rarely the case when that isn’t environmentally destructive.”

Bliss concurred, citing the results of successful protests in the early 1990s that defeated Disney’s plans to build a theme park near Manassas Battlefield Park.

“The Potomac is one of the most natural rivers going through a major city and we want to keep it that way,” he said.

NVCT is monitoring two golf courses in Reston, totaling 300 acres, that are under threat of development and conservationists hope to persuade public officials to keep that land as open space, as it has been for the last half-century, Bliss said.

While the conservation group might keep a few acres at a time from being developed, it’s no great gain if another 300 acres fall into builders’ hands, he said.

Read the article on InsideNoVa.

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