Tax & Accounting Blog

Land management in Stafford County: A cautionary tale

Blog, Governments May 4, 2017

By Scott Mayausky
Commissioner of Revenue, Stafford County

During the 2017 World Bank Land and Poverty Conference held recently in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to discuss property tax and land management practices with delegates from around the world, including several from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and other African nations. The theme of this year’s conference was “Responsible Land Governance,” and I was fortunate enough to lead a field trip to nearby Stafford County, Virginia, to share the story of my county’s experience with responsible (and not so responsible) land management, in particular our history of land acquisition and property rights since the Civil War.

I’m sure many of the delegates wondered how the history of one of the wealthiest counties in the country could be relevant to their own struggles in countries where property rights, democratic institutions, and legal safeguards cannot be taken for granted. But not so long ago, Stafford was one of the poorest counties in the nation. The story of its transformation is full of lessons both good and bad about the role of government in land acquisition and management.

Stafford County: A brief history

To outsiders, Stafford County is best known as the region where George Washington grew up, and where the sandstone used to build the White House and U.S. Capitol building was mined.

During the Colonial era, the county’s historic Port Falmouth was a popular shipping center, and by the mid-1800s the local population had grown to about 9,000 residents. During the Civil War, however, more than 200,000 troops occupied Stafford County. Most of the trees were cut down to serve the war effort, and most of the homes destroyed. Stafford is called a “burned county” because, in addition to all the other damage, most of the county’s public records—including land deeds—were either destroyed by fire or stolen.

After the war, because there were no reliable records, the county went almost a decade without collecting property taxes. Many residents moved away, and for almost a century the people who stayed were mainly subsistence farmers who struggled to survive.

Re-establishing reliable property records took time. To this day, we do not have accurate records of family cemeteries. But Civil War damage wasn’t the last indignity suffered by citizens of Stafford County.

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II, the federal government exercised eminent domain to acquire 20 percent of Stafford County’s land for a rapid expansion of the Quantico Marine Corps Base. The decision was made with very little consideration for the families affected. Residents were given only three weeks to pack their belongings and leave, and promises to repay the families fairly for their property went largely unkept.

Learning from our mistakes

When I was a kid growing up in this area during the 1970s, there was a lot of animosity toward the Marine Corps, but I didn’t know why. I realize now it’s because I was going to school with the grandkids of people who were displaced by Quantico. For the World Bank conference attendees, the message I tried to convey was that indiscriminate use of government power can have long-term consequences, and it’s wise for decision-makers to take those consequences into account. For decades, Stafford County’s history left many of its residents with a very low regard for government. But democratic institutions can only function properly if the public trusts them. Erode or destroy that trust—by treating people unfairly, failing to give them a voice, or acting as if their homes and livelihoods don’t matter—and it can leave a stain of ill will that lasts for generations.

Stafford learned important lessons from the Quantico debacle, and did a much better job managing the displacement that occurred when Interstate 95 was routed through the county in the 1960s. Public hearings were held, and people came closer to being adequately compensated for their property. But the freeway split many farms and forced many people to move, as well. So even though the process was handled much more responsibly, it still left a sour taste in people’s mouths.

I-95 connected Stafford County to Washington D.C., eventually transforming our humble farming community into one of the most desired stretches of real estate in the country.

Today, we like to think that we’re more sophisticated about land management and more responsive to the public’s needs. Nevertheless, it’s still a complicated process fraught with potential pitfalls.

Recently, Stafford County finished its largest public works project ever, Lake Mooney Reservoir, a 520-acre lake that will help meet the county’s water needs for the next forty years or longer. In this case, public hearings for the project started 20 years in advance, and every effort was made to ensure a transparent process. Fair market value was paid for properties displaced by the project, businesses were reimbursed for their losses, and an appeals process was established for those who didn’t think they were being treated fairly.

Still, the reservoir created an unintended consequence for those who suddenly found themselves living on luxurious lakeside property: their property taxes went up. To address the issue, the legislature created a special taxing district that allowed homeowners on waterfront property to defer any rise in taxes caused by the reservoir.

Technology’s role in preserving public trust

For the World Bank conference attendees, the scenario demonstrates how much better the outcome is if government uses open, transparent processes when dealing with the public. Trust between government and the public can be preserved, even strengthened, when government representatives respect and listen to property owners before, during, and after undertaking such projects.

The United States is fortunate to have a form of government in which property owners have legally enforceable rights. However, when the legal rights of property owners conflict with those of the government (e.g., in cases of eminent domain or property tax disputes), it’s important to have a fair, open process for resolving such disputes. In Stafford County and elsewhere around the country, these situations have not always been handled responsibly, but progress is definitely being made.

Technology is one big reason for the shift. I am Stafford Country’s tax assessor, which means I am the “tax man” responsible for assessing and billing taxes in a timely manner. My job is made much easier these days because of software tools that allow me to make sure everyone in the county is being taxed fairly, and because of the Internet, which allows the public to view their property valuations and other data about themselves and their neighbors online. Making that information publicly available and enabling citizens to research it for themselves not only helps me do my job, it generates a higher level of trust between the public and local government. It also allows citizens to be more engaged in financial decisions that affect them. It helps, too, for residents to see how their tax dollars are being distributed—for roads, schools, police, fire protection, snow removal, etc.—and to understand that their money is not being wasted.

Now when I give such presentations, I find myself using the word “trust” more and more. Because when it comes right down to it, in order to have effective government in a democratic society, citizens must trust that the government is working for them, not against them. This is the core message I try to communicate to leaders who are fighting for better governance in countries where property owners do not enjoy the same protections. It’s hard work, even in the United States, and as the history of Stafford County demonstrates, we don’t always get it right. But the citizens of Stafford have also shown it is well worth the effort to try to do so, and that the rewards far outweigh the risks of getting it wrong.