Since the Catawba Lands Conservancy started protecting land from development in 1991, the Charlotte-based group has saved more than 5,000 acres in Catawba, Gaston and Lincoln counties.
That amount could jump by more than 20 percent with four projects the nonprofit organization has on its shopping list.
The conservancy is working alone and with local governments to protect properties across the Catawba River Valley, most of which feature creeks that feed into important public water sources.
A 600-acre parcel in southeastern Catawba County with a creek that drains into Lake Norman represents one of the biggest projects the conservancy has ever taken on.
Crescent Resources, a former Duke Energy subsidiary that's now a joint venture with Morgan Stanley Real Estate, owns the land along Mountain Creek. The conservancy is working with Catawba County to get a $2.3 million state grant to buy the property at a discounted rate, a concession negotiated through Duke's application for a new hydroelectric license on the Catawba River.
The property, off Little Mountain Road, is one of the biggest undeveloped parcels on Lake Norman. Its preservation would help protect drinking water while providing a place for the first public park in the fastest-growing area of Catawba County.
As part of the deal, the conservancy would also protect another 130 acres on nearby Terrapin Creek, through a conservation easement. Under such easements, owners of land can continue to use the land for agreed-upon purposes, such as farming, but they and any future owners must abide by development and subdivision restrictions.
“It's a rare opportunity to conserve it for the future and for now,” said conservancy Executive Director Dave Cable, a clean-cut former banker and real-estate analyst who looks as at home in the woods as in a board room. “We want to create a special ecosystem for the critters and the people.”
The Mountain Creek property shows what the shores of Lake Norman looked like 30 years ago – an oasis of thick woods and clear, winding streams full of wildlife. Last week, river birch leaned toward the slow-moving creek, reflected in the water as their first fallen leaves floated on top like a stained-glass window.
If the grant goes through, Catawba County would spend other money to turn the rolling preserve into a park with hiking trails and canoe and kayak access.
Lincoln County project
The conservancy has already worked with another local government to save land for public use.
In Lincoln County, it recently helped county officials buy 116 acres on Pine Ridge Road called Rock Springs, which will become a new park with nature trails.
The parcel, split by Little Creek, drains directly into Lake Norman, and its Little Creek Cove provides Lincoln with drinking water. In addition to keeping the water clean, the project shields wildlife and a mature hardwood stand.
Lincoln County owns the parcel, but the conservancy holds a conservation easement that ensures it will never be developed. The conservancy has had success in preserving properties on what it calls a “landscape scale,” meaning it acquires as many contiguous parcels as it can, rather than picking up pieces here and there that don't touch. One example: its more than 3,000 acres acquired in clusters on the South Fork River in Catawba and Lincoln counties.
That way, wildlife fare better because animals don't have to cross roads or development. Conserving piecemeal, conversely, would be like “taking Central Park and snipping it up and putting the pieces throughout Manhattan,” Cable said, “as opposed to being the mass it is.”
Conservancy officials pay for projects with public and private grants and other gifts . Sometimes they approach landowners about selling or donating their properties. Other times, landowners offer to work with the organization. Some owners sell their land to the conservancy, while others donate it or let the group protect it in perpetuity through easements. Some do a combination of the three.
Cable said he's proud of the conservancy's accomplishments so far in Catawba, Gaston and Lincoln counties because it has “saved some of the area's most ecologically diverse” lands.
But he said a lot of work remains to stay ahead of expected development.
“Our natural landscapes are critical to quality of life and sense of place,” he said. “They're being converted at a very rapid rate, and once they're developed, that's irreversible. The challenge on us is to think long-term about saving some key areas. It gets harder as development increases because the price of land goes up.”