By Cathy Kuehner
Charles “Chuck” Johnston, who served as Clarke County Planning Director for 22 years, was honored February 11 with the Wingate Mackay-Smith Clarke County Land Conservation Award.
The award recognized work he did in the early 2000s that continues to support property owners who want to preserve their land from future development.
In the early 2000s, Johnston began designing the county’s Conservation Easement Purchase Program (CEP Program) which was ultimately created by ordinance by the Board of Supervisors in 2002. The CEP program helps preserve land with significant agricultural, natural, scenic, and historic resources. As the CEP program begins its 20th year in 2022, the Conservation Easement Authority wanted to recognize Johnston as the staff person who largely developed the program. He researched conservation easements, established criteria for acceptance, and wrote the code sections for the creation of the Conservation Easement Authority (CEA).
Johnston left Clarke County in late 2011 to take a similar position in Calvert County, Md. When he announced his departure, Johnston told The Winchester Star how impressed he was by the county and town officials who worked together to create the Berryville Area Plan to designate future growth areas. “[Clarke County and the Town of Berryville] had an urban development area before urban development areas were thought of in Richmond,” he said.
Today, Johnston is director of the Community Planning and Building Department for the City of
Fredericksburg, Va.In 2012, Governor Bob McDonnell honored Clarke County’s CEA with an Environmental Excellence Award for its successful efforts to protect and preserve land. The CEA was honored also for filling an important niche by enabling landowners who might not meet the criteria of other programs to place smaller parcels of land in easement.
Easements are voluntary agreements negotiated between landowners and public agencies in which the landowners agree to place specific restrictions on the use and development of their property in exchange various income and estate tax benefits. In the case of the CEA, there are also payments to the landowner. Clarke County Conservation Easement Authority recorded its first easement in 2003.
When CEP Program properties are included with other conservation holdings, such as those held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, about 25 percent — 26,790 acres — of Clarke County is permanently protected, and hundreds of dwelling unit rights have been retired as of January 2022. At 178-square miles (113,920 acres), Clarke is the eighth smallest county in Virginia. The county also maintains a sliding scale zoning policy that preserves large tracts of land by permitting fewer dwelling unit rights per acre for larger existing parcels.
Since 2015, the Wingate Mackay-Smith Clarke County Land Conservation Award has honored individuals, groups, and organizations for their significant contributions to the preservation and protection of open spaces in Clarke County. The award also draws attention to the need for land conservation and the role easements play in preserving natural and historic resources.
Mackay-Smith was the first recipient of the award as she was instrumental in helping the Board establish the Clarke County Conservation Easement Authority, and she helped negotiate the authority’s first easement purchase — historic Greenway Court — the colonial-era home of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Other Wingate Mackay-Smith Clarke County Land Conservation Award recipients are: Holy Cross Abbey (2015); G. Robert Lee, Margaret Maizel, Robert Mitchell, and A.R. “Pete” Dunning (2016); Melvin Kohn (2017); Joe and Denise Sipe (2018); J. Michael Hobert (2019); and the American Battlefield Trust and Shenandoah University (2020).
For information about conservation easements, contact Clarke County Easement Authority Specialist Alison Teetor at (540) 955-5177 or email@example.com. Learn more at clarkelandconservation.org.