The Green Scene

A billion dollars’ worth of protected land

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is working to put a conservation easement on Hickory Nut Gap Farm. courtesy SAHC

Farmers, land conservationists, public officials and area residents crowded into A-B Tech’s Ferguson Auditorium Jan. 4 to comment on a plan that would allocate an additional $1 billion in state funds for land and water conservation. The turnout was so overwhelming that the public-comment session had to be extended 30 minutes so every speaker could be heard.

The state’s Land and Water Conservation Commission drafted the plan, which outlines both the need for more open-space preservation and the revenue sources that might be tapped to secure it. The General Assembly created the commission at the close of last year’s session, after a bill authorizing $1 billion to be divvied up among the state’s conservation trusts failed to pass. Charged with determining how to pay for the funding increase without accruing more debt, the commission is seeking public comment on the draft proposal at three separate meetings in January and will present its findings to the state next month.

With North Carolina’s population increasing rapidly — more than 7 percent over the past five years, according to the commission — the natural landscape is facing unprecedented development pressure. According to Land for Tomorrow, a coalition of land trusts backing the plan, North Carolina loses as much as 100,000 acres to development every year.

Failing to protect pristine land from unchecked development is akin to “killing the golden goose,” Rep. Charles Thomas, R-Buncombe, said at the meeting. The commission report agrees, arguing that land preservation is a smart move for the state’s economy in the long run, citing agriculture, forestry, tourism and even the military as major industries that depend on North Carolina’s open space.

Many representatives of local land trusts voiced support for the proposal, underlining the importance of state funding for securing conservation easements. Bob Youngerman, vice president of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, noted that the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund had been instrumental in his group’s acquisition of the “World’s Edge” property, which will be part of the future Hickory Nut Gorge State Park. According to the commission, the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund had six times more requests for projects than it had funds for last year.

Farmland preservation was another major issue brought to the table, with roughly one-quarter of those in attendance representing local agriculture. John Ager, chair of the Buncombe County Farmland Preservation Advisory Board, said the Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview has been in his family for generations. “We want to keep it a farm,” he said of the 600-acre property where his son raises grass-fed cattle. “But without easements, it has a good chance of being developed.”

Not every farmer in the room was impressed with the report’s provisions. A few zeroed in on a proposed water-usage fee, which they said would impact agricultural operations. “Anything that adds a cost to farmers is going to defeat the purpose [of preserving farmland],” said Buncombe County Farm Bureau President Billy Johnston.

And a few representatives from the real-estate community expressed dissatisfaction with proposed measures aimed at developers, such as increases in deed-transfer and building-permit fees.

“A portion of the costs of conservation and preservation should be borne by those responsible for the changing environment,” the commission’s report states. But Duncan Haggart, president of the Asheville Board of Realtors, noted that the proposed transfer taxes would have a significant impact on the local housing industry.

On the whole, however, the crowd gave the proposal a thumbs up, with many emphasizing the need to preserve the natural landscape for the benefit of future generations and the public health.

To read the report and send in written comments, visit www.landfortomorrow.org.

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