HJR 719

Commission on the Future of Virginia's Environment

December 17, 1999, Richmond

The commission's second meeting of the 1999 interim was held for the purpose of considering recommendations from its subcommittees. The commission also heard a presentation from the National Association of Homebuilders on "smart growth."

Parks and Land Conservation Subcommittee

Virginia's parks have seen significant improvements in recent years, due to the $95 million general obligation bond issue that was authorized by the citizens in 1992. With these facility enhancements come significant additional personnel, operational and maintenance needs. According to an annual information exchange compiled by the National Association of State Parks Directors, Virginia ranks 49th among the 50 states in the proportion of the state's operating budget spent on state parks and 48th in per-capita spending on state parks. About half of the state's park rangers are required to receive the same law-enforcement training as other types of law-enforcement officers, but these park rangers are generally paid significantly less than other law-enforcement officers. This is so even though park rangers have a large range of duties in addition to law enforcement. After reviewing these facts and a great deal of additional information and visiting many of the Commonwealth's parks, the subcommittee has concluded that state parks should be given a higher general fund priority, so that the parks and their staffs receive adequate funding on a continual basis.

The subcommittee's recommendations regarding the park system, all of which were endorsed by the commission, are as follows. The annual general fund appropriation to the Division of State Parks should be increased by $8.5 million for park operations and preventive maintenance. An additional $900,000 should be appropriated annually for salary re-grades that would allow rangers to be paid at a level more competitive with salaries of other law-enforcement officers. Parks should receive an annual general fund appropriation of $8 million per year for maintenance reserve projects.

The subcommittee has also become convinced that Virginia's land conservation needs are such that a stable funding source in a significant amount should be allocated to land conservation. The subcommittee has recommended that $40 million per year of the money generated by the state recordation tax should be allocated to the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation. Under this proposal, the money will be available after currently existing allocations of recordation tax revenues are made. The commission endorsed this recommendation in concept at its October, 8, 1999, meeting. Legislation implementing the recommendation was approved by the commission at the December 17 meeting.

Finally, the subcommittee made, and the full commission endorsed, the following recommendations with regard to farmland protection. First, a comprehensive study of farmland protection measures should be undertaken. Second, it should be noted that the subcommittee's recommendation to allocate state recordation tax revenues to the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation is, in part, a farmland protection measure. Under 1999 legislation that revised the foundation's basic law, one quarter of all unrestricted money received by the foundation must be spent on farmlands and forest preservation. Finally, the Preservation of Important Farmlands law should be revised in order to ensure that state agency actions do not have the unintended consequence of leading to farmland conversion.

The current important farmlands law requires state agencies to evaluate the impacts of their actions on farm and forest lands. Legislation proposed by the subcommittee replaces the definition of "important farmlands" with a set of characteristics exhibited by farm and forest lands that are worthy of protection. The bill also clarifies that the requirement of evaluating impacts on farm and forest lands applies to highway and road construction projects. With regard to state agency farmland protection plans, the bill requires annual updates and review by the Secretary of Commerce and Trade, who must submit an annual report to the standing committees of jurisdiction in the General Assembly.

Solid Waste Subcommittee

The Solid Waste Subcommittee's recommendation was that the commission should be continued for another year. The two main issues before the subcommittee require an additional year of work. The first issue is the older, unlined landfills known as "HB 1205 landfills." The Department of Environmental Quality is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a study that will provide a technical basis for deciding when and how these landfills should be closed. The second issue is the importation of solid waste into Virginia. Congressional action is required in order for the Commonwealth to have more control over the amount of waste that is imported. The subcommittee is sending a letter to Congressman Bliley, asking that he take a more active role in encouraging importing and exporting states to negotiate a legislative solution. The subcommittee will continue to monitor federal progress on this issue. The full commission endorsed the subcommittee's proposed continuing resolution.

Vision and Plan Subcommittee

The Vision and Plan Subcommittee recommended that a document entitled "Vision for the Future Management of Virginia's Natural Resources" be adopted by the commission. The commission postponed discussion of the vision until its next meeting, and staff was requested to convert the document into draft legislation for the commission's consideration. The subcommittee is also recommending that House Bill 2273 (1999), the Virginia Natural Resources Policy Act, be reintroduced and enacted during the 2000 Session. The commission will consider this proposal at its next meeting. The subcommittee's final recommendation was that a new smart growth study be established. The full commission recommended that the smart growth study be incorporated into the commission's continuing resolution.

Next Meeting

The next meeting of the commission will be held at 1:00 on January 7, 2000. At that meeting, the commission will consider the Vision and Plan Subcommittee's recommendations and any recommendations of the Wetlands Subcommittee, which will have met that morning. The commission will also hear a presentation from the Secretary of Natural Resources on the allocations of the Water Quality Improvement Fund that are contained in the Governor's proposed budget.

The Honorable Thomas W. Moss, Jr., Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Nikki Rovner