Residents unite to save farmland

Since May, more than 120 Concord residents have banned together to help spread the word to "save" 250 acres of generations-old farmland from being annexed by the city of Concord.

Landowners used social networking, posted dozens of signs on local roads and went door-to-door asking for support from neighbors. The city council had planned to hold a public hearing on the issue June 15, but during a work session last week unanimously voted to remove the farmland on Pitts School Road and Roberta Road from the annexation process.

Mayor Scott Padgett and city manager Brian Hiatt said the proposed annexation could be used as a way to promote state conservation easement programs, which protect land indefinitely and allow owners to maintain rights of the property.

"A lot of people don't know that exists," said Padgett.

Landowners can work with the state, and the county's soil and water conservation district, to protect family homesteads, farmland, wildlife, natural resources or preserve the area's rural setting. Details: 704-920-3300.

The land considered for annexation is off U.S. 29, near the speedway. Landowners include Bo and Wendy Sellers, Steve Blackwelder and family, Regina Furr Hinson and other members of the Furr family.

They said they were concerned that if they were annexed they wouldn't be able to afford additional taxes and eventually would be forced to sell their land. City officials said the proposed annexation had a special provision that prevented the city from charging more taxes, as long as the land maintained its current use.

Information on the general statute regarding present-use value was offered to some residents at a recent public information meeting, but some refused it, said Hiatt. Though some residents had very legitimate concerns, Padgett said a lot of misinformation was being circulated. The council has no future plans to move forward on the annexation.

Regina, 58, inherited the land from her father, Daniel. Other family members operate portions of the land as a full-time occupation, but some have other occupations to supplement income.

"I am pleased that the council is doing their job by listening to the people's concerns," said Regina. "This land was farmed by dad's father and his grandfather, so that's in excess of 200 years of farming. My father raises beef cattle for extra income. Farming is my dad's passion. Even at 91 he still does what he can to assist his nephews."

Daniel Furr said he doesn't think the city needs to annex so much land and that a price can't be put on his family's land.

"The city annexes too much as it is and they have a hard time supplying (utilities to) what they have," he said. "I don't want to put a price on (my land) because it's not for sale."

Urban farming has not been part of the general trend the last few decades, but that is shifting and that's why the council adopted a goal to work with Cabarrus County to promote conservation easements, said Hiatt.

"Open space is a positive to us, to them and neighborhood around them," said Hiatt. "There are more aggressive things that can be done to preserve (land) and we'll work with them if they're interested in doing that because the type of farming we're seeing there, that's something that certainly can benefit everybody."

In the county's land use plan the farmland is zoned residential. The city considered annexing the land to streamline efficiency of fire, police and other services, said Hiatt.

"The concerns would be the efficiency of services in the future and being able to control planning for that, and to be able to make sure that our residents that are adjacent to, or surrounding, are not harmed by changes," said Hiatt. "If (someone) wants to keep a family farm or open space..., we will work with them to do that because an open space in an urban area and low-intensity farming is good for us all."

Bo Sellers and his wife, Wendy, are up-and-coming organic farmers. Bo, a healthcare architect, is a Cabarrus County Agriculture Advisory Board member and a member of the inaugural class of the Cabarrus County Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm. Wendy, a fifth-generation farmer who was laid off from Wells Fargo in fall 2010, is on the farm full time.

They manage 47 acres of land and are transitioning to a certified organic farm on five acres and plan to have all the land certified organic by next year.

The couple advocated for saving farmland like theirs throughout North Carolina and recently spoke to the Senate State and Local Government Committee as a proponent for Stop NC Annexation, which is lobbying for H168, a House bill that ends the "capricious and malicious use of annexation" in NC and prohibits the annexation of farms.

Bo's cousin's farm spans 4,000 acres in eastern North Carolina, including land from the family's original King George land grant. The couple's farm, Allee' Bubba Farms, is in the Cabarrus County Agriculture District and was descended through the Blackwelder family and has been in Wendy's family for 113 years.

The sellers are pleased with the city's decision, but say there's more work to be done.

"I think we made headway and may have won a battle, but the war is far from over," Bo said. "We'd like to see everyone call senator Fletcher Hartsell and senator Bob Rucho in Charlotte and ask them to pass H168, as it's been read, for it's third reading and send it to the governor to sign in to law."

Reach Hartsell at 919-733-7223 and Rucho at 919-733-5655.