Citywide program – Formed in 1995 – researched by Suzanne Heflin

OVERVIEW – Virginia Beach is the only city in the United States that operates a significant agricultural easement program. And although it is the largest city in Virginia, with a population exceeding 400,000, Virginia Beach also encompasses in its borders a large agricultural area-a result of its incorporation 40 years ago through merger with a rural county. The Green Line, a sharp urban boundary, separates the northern urban area from the southern agricultural parts of the city. The city is running out of developable land in the urban area, however, resulting in pressure to build homes south of the boundary. The easement program is funded exclusively by local revenues and uses Installment Purchase Agreements (IPA) to purchase development rights. With ample funds, the program has moved quickly to acquire a significant volume of easements in the seven years of its existence.

EASEMENT ACTIVITY – 6,346 acres in 106 properties: estimated 65 percent cropland, 30 percent woodland and 5 percent pasture.
Goals: 20,000 acres in the Agricultural Reserve.
Other Easement Programs: None within the city limits. The Navy owns land surrounding the Air Station that is actively farmed, however the property is not under easement.

Acquisition Spending to Date: Almost $13.5 million.
Revenues: Annual appropriations from city general funds and a dedicated portion ($.015) of the city real estate (property) tax. The IPAs run for 25 years.

GOVERNANCE – The Agriculture Reserve Program is administered by the city’s Agriculture Department. The program is overseen by the Virginia Beach Agricultural Advisory Commission, a five-member citizens board appointed by the city council.

STAFF AND OPERATING BUDGET – One full-time administrator and one office assistant. The annual operating budget is approximately $130,000. Legal and fiscal expertise is provided the program by other departments of city government.

ORIGINS – Organization of the Agricultural Reserve Program in 1995 was preceded by a series of efforts to protect the city’s farmland from development. In 1979, the Urban Service Boundary, the “green line”, was established in response to local concerns over rapid growth and water shortages. An update of the city’s comprehensive plan in 1994 produced the Rural Preservation Plan, intended to preserve agricultural and environmental areas and that shifted standards for residential building in rural areas from road frontage to soil suitability for septic tanks. A major argument for persuading the city council in 1995 to pass the ordinance creating the Agricultural Reserve Program was that it would reduce public infrastructure costs.

ACQUISITION PROCESS AND STRATEGY – The Advisory Commission determines the eligibility requirements, sets purchase priorities and advises the city council in easement acquisitions. The Agriculture Department reviews applications and orders appraisals for qualified properties. The city manager makes purchase offers and the City Council approves acquisitions. All acquisitions are located in the Agricultural Preserve Area south of the Green Line. Currently because of sufficient funds, the quantitative rating system is bypassed and eligible (see other criteria) applications are processed on a first come, first serve basis.
Rating of Parcels: Quantitative. When used, the formal rating system with 100 maximum points gives top priority to natural resource values, farm management, agricultural quality and contiguity. Development potential, development proximity, strategic location and urgency are given less weight.
Other Criteria: Ten acres minimum, location below the Green Line with the exception of one transition area, development potential, location in certain zoning districts, not reserved for open space or recreational uses and absence of certain soil types.

CONNECTIONS TO LOCAL PLANNING AND LAND USE POLICIES – Easement acquisitions, confined to the Agricultural Reserve Area south of the Green Line, complement the city’s overall growth policies. The line is a firm growth boundary that directs urban development to the north and prevents the extension of sewer and water service to the south. A transition area serves as an entryway to the Agricultural Reserve Area, allowing recreational use and low density housing. A city Open Space Program purchases easement and fee simple interest in park and open space areas in the northern part of the city.
Zoning: Under the Rural Preservation Plan, zoning in the Agricultural Reserve Area (30,300 acres south of the green line) is based on soil type-one unit to 15 acres base. Higher densities may be obtained with a conditional use permit under Alternative Residential Development provisions. The development plan must be approved and clustering is encouraged. Only three developers to date have obtained higher densities through this provision.

2000 Population: 425,257
1990-2000 Population Change: + 32,168 residents; + 8 percent

30,300 acres included in the Agricultural Reserve Area.
Conversion to Urban Use: Comparative conversion data not available.

1997 Market Value: $13.6 million Number of Farms: 147
Principal Commodities: Livestock, agronomic crops, fruits and vegetables


All easements – Agricultural reserve Properties are located in the southern portion of the city, below the Urban Service Boundary or Green Line. No easements are contiguous to the line. The North Landing River/Intercoastal Waterway runs north-south dividing the agricultural Reserve area into roughly one-third to the west and two-thirds to the east. Most of the easements are concentrated in the western one-third of the agricultural reserve, where significant blocks of preserved farmland are forming. Easements located in the eastern two-thirds of the Agricultural Reserve Area are widely dispersed. The Transition Area (green crosshatching) separates the Agricultural Reserve Area from the urbanized part of the city.