Q&A: A developer’s perspective on value of conservation

STRIKING BALANCE: Andy Baker accepts the 2023 Land Stewardship of the Year award from Karin Heiman, deputy director of the Southeast Regional Land Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Baker

Andy Baker has spent the last 17 years building a home for himself, his family and many others through his development projects in Western North Carolina. Originally from Michigan, Baker graduated from Purdue University with a degree in forestry before pursuing a career in real estate development.

Earlier this year, the Southeast Regional Land Conservancy awarded Baker the 2023 Land Stewardship of the Year award for his conservation efforts. Located between Asheville and Hendersonville, his most recent development, Sprout, protects nearly 400 acres of land in perpetuity.

In a telephone interview for Mountain Xpress, Baker talked about the importance of conservation as both a developer and a resident of the Asheville area. 

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Xpress: The Southeast Regional Land Conservancy awarded you the Land Stewardship of the Year award for your conservation efforts. What inspired you to partner with the SRLC, as well as the North Carolina Beekeepers Association?

Baker: I talked to a bunch of different conservation groups and ran across SRLC. I had some conversations with Karin Heiman, who is now [deputy] director, and we began exploring what that might look like. What we’ve chosen to do is set very limited uses on conservation easement areas. It’s pretty much just some trails, and maybe an overlook, or a little 10-by-10 wooden platform deck where you can take a break. It’s superlimited – so no hunting, no fishing, no timbering, obviously no development. We’ve done a handful of easements over the past seven years or so, and it’s been a great relationship.

In regards to the North Carolina Beekeepers Association, about 10 years ago I became a little bit more aware about the declining bee population. Just from my background [in forestry], I had some knowledge on the contributing factors of bees as pollinators and their role in the overall environment. It was just interesting to me. There’s some simple things we could do to try to support bee populations. That could go anywhere from setting up hives and apiaries and managing those, to setting aside large areas that contain great habitat for bees.

So I started thinking about ways to try to incorporate that into a community, the idea being not only to attract people that were into bees, but more to educate people and try to spread the message, and bring in the people that were qualified to do such.

Your latest development, Sprout, sits atop Rich Mountain between Asheville and Hendersonville. Would you mind sharing a bit about the history of that site?

On the northeast side of Rich Mountain, there’s a pass. Between Rich Mountain and Hightop there’s what’s called Baldwin Gap, and Baldwin Gap was a Native American trail that cut between the mountains. In later years it became a drovers’ road. At one point, there were even automobiles that would travel it, and there’s remnants of old Model Ts and that sort of thing. That whole section is a big part of the conservation easement.

There’s a lot of rock faces and rock outcroppings, and there are a few salamander species that are very unique and found in very small areas, and this is one of them. The other aspect that’s unique are the number of Carolina and Eastern hemlocks that are found on the property. After talking with [the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and SRLC] I put together a hemlock restoration program. We bring out a biologist, and he does what’s called a CoreTect treatment, treating for that woolly adelgid that’s wiping out hemlocks.

Sprout encourages more thoughtful architecture in terms of integrating homes with the environment. Does that extend into the landscaping?

100 percent. We don’t allow for non-native planting. We’ve got native plant lists that have been [reviewed] by biologists here locally. A big focus of our design review is how you’re handling water. I think that stormwater management in mountain communities is often overlooked, or at least not addressed appropriately. So that’s a big part of the design process. Prior to design, we require you to do a tree survey. We require your team to have a landscape architect because that’s as critical as the overall design.

How do your conservation efforts help preserve local communities and the natural landscape?

[Conservation] adds value to the greater community because oftentimes it protects viewsheds and that sort of thing. When folks are looking back on a community or back at a mountain, obviously it helps to be able to preserve a large portion of that and not see homes or rooftops in the future. Putting together these large corridors for wildlife – I’ve got the conservation easement here at Sprout, and it’s contiguous with another 140-acre conservation easement that I did outside of Sprout. Sprout’s conservation easement is contiguous with another conservation easement that Conserving Carolina has, so it ties together these other protected areas. You start to create these larger, contiguous corridors and areas for wildlife as opposed to having these patchwork [developments].

Are there any sort of tax incentives associated with land conservation?

Yes, there are. At times you’ll hear about conservation easements and they have kind of a bad name. They’ll be exploited. There are different ways to establish the value of the easement. The easement is viewed by the IRS as a gift, and so you can determine the value with an appraiser. And that gift value is just like any other gift you give in a tax sense. The problem is how you determine the value of that gift, and I’m superconservative on that value because the goal of this is not the monetary side. There are some developers and some groups that just try to do conservation easements, and they try to max out the value of the gift.

Buncombe and adjacent counties are experiencing rapid development. How can developers play a better part in conserving the environment?

I struggle when I see that density just maximized. I try to generally go between a quarter to a third of the density that’s actually permitted. A lot of developers struggle with conservation because the tax incentive isn’t that great, and it is a business after all. I hope that there are some developers that can change that mindset, that there’s a bigger benefit to just the monetary side of it.

I’m not a native North Carolinian. I’ve been here for 17 years though, and I’ve raised my children here. I am part of the community, and I think that changes your mindset a little bit when you’re looking at development – as opposed to someone from out of town or someone that doesn’t really have any stakes in the ground here. Lowering density, setting aside large tracts for preservation, welcoming the wildlife resource commission onto your property – and whatever they identify, whether it be hemlocks or salamanders, that you put processes in place to protect those.

What do you love the most about the Appalachian Mountains?

I’m very much outdoor-oriented. I love to mountain bike, I love to be outside, I love to fish, I love to hike and paddle, as does my family. So the greatest draw I would say are the recreational opportunities. I’ve got a couple of Labradors that love the woods. They’re big dopes, but they’re fun. That, and I also would say the people. Maybe I’m just fortunate enough to surround myself with kind and thoughtful people. It seems like the mountains draw some really great folks.



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About Trevor Leach
Trevor Leach is a freelance writer and artist based in Asheville. In addition to self-publishing several books and handmade zines, they have also worked on the editorial teams of the Sentry newspaper and Paperbark magazine.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A: A developer’s perspective on value of conservation

  1. ahikingchick

    It was a breath of fresh air to hear about a developer who cares as much about the environment as the landscape of the beautiful mountains in and around Asheville. He is an inspiration to anyone living and gardening in any area. of the country. Great article!

  2. gyp

    Come on man. When we maximize density we maximize walkability and minimize sprawl. This might be “green” in a superficial way but it’s not “sustainable.”

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