Western North Carolina, while a burgeoning area for new development, continues to be an area rich in fertile farm land and rural cultural heritage. The city of Asheville is at the area’s center and is surrounded by natural beauty and prime NC mountain real estate. That’s why groups such as the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) exist – to help maintain and preserve scenic ridge lines and sustainable farm land.
According to Carl Silverstein, Executive Director for SAHC, his organization is “working to maintain a high quality of life in the region.”
There are many open land areas that surround Asheville that have meaningful agricultural components and that produce high-quality fruits and vegetables for regional tailgate markets and restaurants.
The mission of SAHC is to work with individuals, developers, and community organizations to help identify, preserve, and manage the region’s important lands.
This work is accomplished through a variety of factors that include building partnerships to create land trusts and conservation easements, and fostering growth of community lands.
To date, SAHC has helped to ensure the protection of over 40,000 acres throughout the mountain region. A recent area of focus is an area located in Northwestern Buncombe County – Sandy Mush.
Buncombe County has finalized and funded two conservation projects which have raised the number of protected acres in the Sandy Mush area to 6,000. This land is now permanently protected for clean water, scenic views and farming. Joseph Allawos and Eva Scruggs, owners of the 80-acre Sugar Creek Farm that grows produce for local markets, and Ray Hearne, owner of a 62 acre-tract containing a native plant restoration site, completed conservation agreements with SAHC. /p>
To cover the transaction costs for the Sugar Creek project, Buncombe County contributed $12,100 to match an $11,500 grant from the N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The value of the conservation easement, which Allawos and Scruggs donated, is approximately $182,000.
The county compensated Hearne 50 percent of the appraised value of the conservation easement. The county’s Farmland Preservation Fund donated $30,500 for transaction costs to complete the project.
“The county has opened up several doors for landowners who want to protect their land forever and keep the character of our rural areas, but don’t have the resources to pay the expenses associated with conservation transactions,” Silverstein explains. “In the last two years, the county has allocated $3.9 million for land conservation. Of that, so far $3.5 million has been committed.
Silverstein says that their goal is to protect an additional 6,000 acres in the area. He adds that he is currently in discussion with two to three land owners in Sandy Mush to purchase a conversation easement.
These conservation easement purchases would then be donated, providing SAHC with protected land. In turn, these conservation easements allow property owners to receive partial compensation for the value of their land or tax benefits for giving up the right to develop or subdivide the land. Subsequent owners remain bound by the easement requirements.
“Conservation easements also provide residential communities with an attractive marketing amenity to potential NC mountain real estate buyers – land that is protected forever,” Silverstein says.
SAHC has focused on this Sandy Mush region because it is an area that is still rich in rural and agricultural land. It has high elevation, abundant wildlife, and is a corridor that continues to be blessed with native plants and animals.
For instance, Bill Duckett’s farm land in Sandy Mush has been in his family for at least five generations, and he wanted to see the land stay the way it is. As a result, he placed land in a conservation easement that will help to ensure that.
“Forty years from now, people will see this conserved land as a gift from nature,” Silverstein says. “Therefore, the conservancy will continue to work on land preservation in Sandy Mush.”
SAHC is member based and currently has 1,500 members. Silverstein explains that he encourages NC mountain homeowners who live in communities near conservation easements to join SAHC so that they can enjoy outings and guided hikes led by SAHC volunteers on these protected properties.