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Wednesday, 10 January 2007 00:00

Support builds for Haywood land trust

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Dave Curphey’s story is a dime a dozen. Fed up with the urban sprawl that ruined his small town in Florida, devouring a landscape once dominated with orchards in just 10 short years, he packed his bags and moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina. His favorite line to locals: “You should have shot me at the border when you still had the chance.”

 

But now the exodus is on, and unless something is done and fast, this place will be writhing with the very development Curphey and thousands others like him tried to escape.

“Everyone of the farmers are getting solicited by realtors who are being funded by land speculators,” Curphey said. “The pressure is on, and we have to do something.”

Curphey lives in Bethel, a river valley between Waynesville and Canton dominated by pastoral scenes, where a groundswell has been building to save the rural character that makes their community special. They formed the Bethel Rural Preservation committee — an offshoot of their community club — to begin the tough work of preserving farmland.

The movement has grown and now plans are in the works to create a Haywood County land trust to do the same thing on a countywide scale.

There’s several land trusts already in the region, but none that focus specifically on Haywood County.

“There are some gaps that currently aren’t being addressed,” said Gordon Small, who was on an exploratory land trust task force appointed by the county. Land trusts in neighboring counties have their hands full trying to preserve land in their home territory, and as a result Haywood County doesn’t top their list of priorities.

George Ivey, who was also on the task force, said the group also realized “there was no coherent plan for conservation in Haywood County.” Ivey said the county needs a “blueprint” to establish priorities for land protection. For example, if you could save one farm, which one would it be?

Mark Swanger, a recent county commissioner, proposed the concept of a land trust last year.

“When you see the evaporation of farmland and green space in the county and the proliferation of development, it seemed obvious to me we couldn’t’ t wait much longer, if any longer, to try to establish a program that would preserve farmland and green space,” Swanger said. “It goes beyond preserving real estate. It helps to preserve the very culture of Haywood County, a way of life and our heritage.”

The county commissioners appointed an exploratory committee that spent several months researching the various routes to farmland preservation. They committee concluded the best option would be the creation of a non-profit to serve as a land trust in Haywood County, with the proposed name Haywood Conservation Foundation.

But to make it work, the county would need to provide the seed money to jump start it and potentially subsidize its efforts until donations and memberships grew. The commissioners responded positively to the recommendation, pledging to include funding for a land conservation entity in next year’s budget.

Swanger is no longer a commissioner, but hopes to see the torch carried.

“We are at the point where the decision makers need to make some decisions,” Swanger said.

At the same time, the county can’t simply fund an idea. The commissioners need something tangible to give dollars to. Supporters of a Haywood County land trust are currently piecing together the makings of an inaugural board of directors that would set the entity on its course.

Meanwhile, commissioners seem to be sticking to their pledge. Next week, the commissioners are holding their annual all-day planning workshop where they will lay the groundwork for the 2007 budget. Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe said farmland and open land preservation is her top goal for the year and will be on the agenda at the workshop.

 

Giving it away

Conservation easements are the top tool in farmland preservation. The region has plenty of dirt-loving farmers who shudder at the idea of their land being developed one day when they are dead and gone. With a conservation easement, they can pass their farm down to their heirs, even sell it if they want, with one caveat — it can never, ever be developed. The conservation easement is fixed to the property deed no matter how many times the property changes hands.

It lowers the land’s value, of course. Deep-pocketed developers are no longer clamoring over it, only those willing to keep the land in open space. So most farmers want a little something in return for tying up their property with a conservation easement — nothing close to full market value, but a little something in return. And that takes money.

Even if a farmer will put their land in a conservation easement for no return, there are still costs to cover. They need an official appraisal to determine the value of their tax breaks. They also need money for legal costs to record the conservation easement.

“Even if you have someone ready to donate a conservation easement, you have $15,000 to $20,000 just to process it,” Ivey said.

There is grant money floating around for such things. But it takes someone to apply for it. That’s one role a land trust based in Haywood County could play.

“You need someone looking out for the money, matching up available funds with available projects,” Ivey said. The land trust would have to have some cash of its own, since some grants require matches.

In the meantime, the Bethel Rural Preservation committee has applied for non-profit status, mostly so it can apply for grants directly and potentially hold conservation easements. It has received more than $50,000 in grant money for conservation projects. The committee conducted a telephone survey to measure public sentiment toward development and conservation, which proved to be an important tool for garnering political support.

Only 2 percent of people said they wanted to see more development occur in Bethel. When asked whether they would support some type of public funding for farmland preservation, 65 percent said “yes” and only 19 percent said “no.”

“That’s a 3 to 1 ratio of support, and that’s pretty overwhelming,” Ivey said.

Curphey said a Haywood County land trust and Bethel group would likely share the same goals and could even merge one day if the countywide land trust gets off the ground. But they got tired of waiting on the countywide effort.

“We are not going to sit here and wait for two, three or four years while that process gets under way,” Curphey said.

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