County moves to preserve rare wetland

A biological Eden will soon be in public hands after Mecklenburg County commissioners agreed to buy a 23-acre wetland and surrounding land in Davidson.

The $4.2 million, 90-acre purchase, which commissioners agreed to Wednesday night, saves increasingly scarce habitat for frogs, turtles and salamanders from development.

Commissioners designated the site on the West Branch of the Rocky River a county nature preserve, which means it will be used only for passive recreation. A nature center, with hiking trails, picnic areas and possibly a boardwalk for visitors, may be built in a few years.

The agreement ends months of negotiation with the developer of the Summers Walk community, which had planned to build new homes to the edge of the wetland. That would have destroyed the qualities that made the place rich in reptiles and amphibians, biologists say.

“Essentially every wetland species in the Charlotte area occurs in this wetland,” said Michael Dorcas, a Davidson College biologist whose students have studied the tract since 1999.

The species they've identified include 11 frogs and toads, eight snakes, four lizards and six each of salamanders and turtles.

That abundance led Mecklenburg's parks department, which will manage the property, to rate it among the top 10 natural areas targeted for county acquisition, said the department's Michael Kirschman.

The money to buy the tract came from the county's 2007 land bonds. The record $250 million park-bond issue on the November ballot doesn't include money to build trails or a nature center, which will likely have to wait for a future bond issue, Kirschman said.

The developer, FC Summers Walk LLC, didn't return a call Thursday. But local officials said a soft real estate market and high development costs likely influenced its decision to sell.

With the sale, Summers Walk becomes a smaller development – it will have 341 homes, about 230 fewer than originally planned. Davidson's town board and the developer still have to agree on changes in open-space requirements and fees to provide law enforcement, fire protection and community parks.

“This has been hanging over us a long time,” said town planning director Kris Krider. “We're really thrilled with the outcome, but we still have some unfinished business.”

The developer's plans had already been approved when Dorcas and the Davidson Lands Conservancy began rallying public officials to preserve the wetland.

Like many N.C. wetlands, which once covered 5 million acres, the one on the West Branch was drained for farming decades ago.

Even after it recovered, the wetland naturally dries up from time to time. But that's good for the creatures that breed there, because no fish are present to gobble their eggs.

The higher ground around the wetland is just as important as water, Dorcas said.

Many salamanders, toads and frogs spend most of their lives in forests, traveling to water only to breed. Several turtle species spend spring and summer in the wetland, but nest and hibernate in the surrounding uplands. Undisturbed ground also filters out pollutants flowing toward the wetland.