South Charlotte

Saving green space a few acres at a time

It was 10 years ago this month that the York County Council gave the green light to saving green space.

So far, the program – York County Forever – has preserved 8,754 acres, most of which would have eventually been turned into subdivisions, strip malls or mobile home lots.

At the time, York County Forever was a highly controversial proposal: Local tax dollars to help secure conservation easements from landowners to keep the land from ever being developed.

In 2007, York County became the first in the Charlotte region to purchase development rights to a family-owned farm. York County Forever worked with several land trusts and Jeff Wilson's family, who owned the 1,000-acre Cotton Hills Farm on the York/Chester county line. Wilson sold the development rights for 850 acres. The property is now appraised at a much lower tax rate, which will allow him to more easily pass the farmland on to his three children who want to see it continue as a working farm.

The Wilsons grow produce for a roadside stand and grind their own grits from a variety of corn that has been in their family since the late 1800s. More than 4,000 school children visit the working farm each year, and Wilson delights in explaining to the children where their food comes from.

Anne Springs Close, founding board member of York County Forever, says the preservation of Cotton Hills Farm was a highlight of the past decade, but saving green space has not been easy.

“Change is hard; people thought we were crazy. They said, ‘Why should we give our tax dollars to landowners not to turn their pasture into a sub-division?'” said Close, former chair of the York County Forever board.

“Back then, some people couldn't see the immediate need to save the open spaces while we still could, because they thought we had an endless supply … If we hadn't started when we did, we'd be like Charlotte with hardly enough open land left to preserve.”

Close, winner of the 2000 BMW Conservation Award in part for her work with the group, said much of the groundwork was done by two former Council members: Carl Gullick and Murray White. She also praises the present leadership of York County Planning Director Susan Britt.

“Carl and Murray persevered through much public opposition and were able to secure some initial funding,” Close said.

Many landowners donate the easements, and York County Forever pays the legal and administrative fees, as well as for land appraisals and the necessary work with the land trusts.

One of the most vocal opponents to the program in the early years was Council member Curwood Chappell, who said the program favored wealthy landowners. In 2006, when the group had only preserved 2,900 acres, far short of its 10,000-acre goal by 2010, Chappell referred to it as a “wasteful, extravagant bureaucracy that the public can't afford.”

Chappell was opposed to spending taxpayers' dollars for land that the public didn't have access to. The public doesn't have access to smaller private tracts, but the public does have access to two of the larger tracts in the program – the 1,647-acre Dalton Ranch/Worth Mountain property off S.C. 11 along the Broad River, and the 92-acre Nanny's Mountain of S.C. 49 and 274, which has hiking trails.

There is also public hunting and fishing on properties such as the 426-acre Draper property on Brattonsville Road.

Chappell has since softened his opposition to the program, which now gets more than $900,000 in county funding annually. Relatives of Chappell have donated a conservation easement on a 238-acre tract off Mobley Store Road.

Former Council member Murray White said the original idea for York County Forever was prompted by a visit from Pat Noonan, founder of the national Conservation Fund. He told a local group of conservationists how easements and the purchase of development rights had been used in the 1980s in eastern Pennsylvania to save large Amish farms that were being bought up by developers from suburban Philadelphia.

“Pat explained the program to us, and I knew it would be hard to sell here until people realized if we didn't start saving some of this open land now it would be cost-prohibitive at a later date,” said White, founder of the Nation Ford Land Trust.

“One thing that has helped us is that this has never been an ‘anti-growth' program. We've always believed that quality land conservation goes hand-in-hand with good economic development practices.”

White said the program has not been all successes: They could not close the deal on one of their first projects, one of the prettiest pieces of rolling, open pasture in the county, the Harper family farm on S.C. 161 near Tirzah; the group also lost out on its $13.2 million bid for Bowater's 1,000-acre former seed pine tree lab and nursery along the Catawba River.

“Some of these projects are exceedingly complex and hard to bring off,” said White. “It's a struggle; some of these lands are highly desirable by developers.”

Former York County Forever chair Jeanne Ferguson acknowledges the struggles and early opposition, but believes the program is on solid ground because it has focused on preserving diverse types of land – historical, such as Lacey's Fort Site, the Revolutionary War British encampment on S.C.322, as well as environmental, like the Knox/Granite outcropping near Clover which is home to several endangered plant species.

“And I think the Stuck property/Flying King Ranch that stretches nearly from York High to the town of Sharon is about as beautiful a piece of open land as you're likely to find in the Piedmont,” said Ferguson, who recently toured the property with newly-installed York County Forever chair Ann Evans. “I mean, York County is right between the crosshairs of two interstates; developers are all over York County.”

Bob and Debbie Stuck bought their first York County property along Turkey Creek near Sharon in 1984 and now have a total of about 4,600 acres. They have recently granted a conservation easement on 800 acres and have plans for more easements, but are doing them in increments to take advantage of a change in federal tax laws in 2006.

“I grew up on a farm in Indiana, and Debbie and I want to see this land preserved for long after we're gone, but in the meantime we have plans for raising cattle, harvesting timber, leasing some land out for hunting, maybe building a pond or two,” Stuck said.

“And I've been quite pleased with dealing with York County Forever. They're very professional and willing to custom-fit an easement for the landowner … We have some old growth hardwood forest here that you just wouldn't believe. And it's good to have a group here that truly appreciates the real value of this land.”