Riparian Easements As A Tool For Watershed Protection
Riparian areas, or those areas adjacent to waterways, serve many ecological functions when left in their natural wooded state. These functions include in-stream and upland wildlife habitat, flood control, streambank erosion protection, and water quality protection. Riparian forests provide the last line of defense for water quality protection by filtering runoff and groundwater before it enters streams. Therefore, riparian forest protection can be a useful tool for meeting goals of watershed protection plans.
The Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District has been protecting soil and water resources in Albemarle, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson counties for over 60 years. Recently, increased funding has been made available to the TJSWCD to support tree-planting for the creation of riparian forests. Now, the TJSWCD is trying to ensure that existing, and newly created, riparian forest buffer areas are protected well into the future.
One way to do that is through the dedication of conservation easements. Conservation easements are legal agreements between a landowner and a public body or conservation group, in which the parties agree to protect certain natural resource values of the land. Riparian easements are a particular type of conservation easement that applies only to streamside (riparian) areas, and are dedicated for the purpose of protecting streamside habitats, floodplains and/or water quality.
Conservation easements are recorded in the local courthouse, and run with the land as the land is passed to heirs or sold. Each easement is tailored to reflect the conservation values of the property, the individual goals of the landowner, and the goals of the holder of the easement. It is a legal agreement in which the landowner retains ownership and control, but conveys certain specified rights, which are negotiable, to the holder of the easement. The public does not gain access to the property. The easement holder works with the landowner to develop a management plan to ensure the protection of the riparian zone. Usually this includes maintaining woody vegetation and limiting livestock access and buildings. Easements often provide for selective cutting of timber in accordance with an approved management plan.
Several conservation organizations, government agencies, and land trusts will hold open space easements in this area. Each easement holder has their own criteria which they use to select the types of easements they will hold. Some examples of criteria include acreage limitations, proximity to other conservation easements, historical value, or natural resource value. Currently, only the TJSWCD will hold riparian easements in this area.
Donating an easement in perpetuity is a way to voluntarily exercise private property rights, ensuring that the natural resource values, which are important to the owner, will be protected indefinitely, no matter who owns the land in the future.
Please contact the TJSWCD at 804-975-0224 for more information on open-space or riparian easements. (Due to staffing limitations, the TJSWCD must be selective in the easements they hold at this time. As interest in the program increases, our hope is that staff resources will increase accordingly.)
Alyson Sappington, District Manager
Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District