Perspectives Online

Conservation easement precludes development, keeps family farm in family. By Art Latham

Gerald Grose (center) indicates his conservation easement land with John Humphrey of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and Eric Caldwell, Transylvania County CES director.
(Photo by Art Latham)
Carolina farmland owned almost a century by a western North Carolina family will never sprout clusters of vacation homes, thanks to a recent conservation easement the family implemented with the help of the College, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and others.

A conservation easement, a permanent deed restriction, can be tailored for each landowner. Generally, it limits land's development potential and reduces its tax value. Land in such easements can continue as farms but can't be intensively developed.

Grose, Humphrey and Caldwell.
(Photo by Art Latham)
Gerald Grose's family, with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust in Hendersonville, recently set up a 127-acre easement with financial help from an N.C. Farmland Preservation Trust grant through an N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services program. The easement protects the fields, pastures and woodlands of rural Hawkins Cove, on the banks of Hawkins Branch, near the Little and French Broad rivers' confluence west of Brevard.

The Groses' easement sets aside one building lot for a future family home site and encourages the working farm and forestry practices already under way.

"The Grose family are innovators anxious to learn and apply practices that make the farm more productive while protecting their valuable land and water resources," says Eric Caldwell, Cooperative Extension director for Transylvania County.

The family's efforts have produced a classic demonstration farm, Morrithel Meadows, showcasing livestock best management practices (BMPs), stream-bank stabilization and enhancement, habitat restoration, farmland preservation and multi-agency cooperation, he says. The farm's name is based on Grose's grandfather and grandmother Hawkins' first names: Morris and Ethel.

"Having worked with them on water-quality and other projects," Caldwell says, "I knew about their desire to protect the farm from development and felt that an easement might be a good tool. I was very careful to make them aware that easements are not always the best answer and to make sure that they understood the ins and outs.

"The Groses are among many western North Carolina landowners experiencing an agricultural profits decline and a pressure increase from developers," notes Jon Calabria, an Extension landscape architect who helped the family with grant formalities and coordinated agencies and other entities to implement the conservation easement.

"Rising property and tax values often preclude profitable farming, so all or some of the land is sometimes sold for development. Many area farms are rapidly being converted to single-family resort homes because of natural amenities, [such as] Pisgah Forest and other public lands, mountain and valley views, proximity to small town life and available well water," says Calabria, who coordinates the Upper French Broad Training Center for the College's Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department.

Grose's earlier and continuing water-quality work indicated that the Grose farm was a good easement candidate, especially since part of the Little River was listed in the 2000 French Broad River Basinwide Water Quality Plan as suffering from agricultural impacts: some marine life habitat degradation and turbidity effects.

Extension, the county Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service first did some stream work at Morrithel in 1997 to repair hurricane damages. In 1998, the N.C. Agricultural Cost Share program, administered by the SWCD, helped install two cattle-watering stations, two stream crossings and stream buffers. Also, the N.C. State water quality group and Cooperative Extension, with funding from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, installed 13 log-and-rock cross-vanes and riparian plantings to stabilize eroding stream banks along 1,300 feet of Hawkins Branch and to reestablish a more natural riffle-and-pool system to encourage trout and other fish to return to the stream.

That was important not only to water quality, but to almost a mile of Hawkins Branch and a more than a half-mile of a nearby Hart Branch tributary classified as trout waters.

In 2000, Grose received a "Friend of the River" award from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council for leadership in implementing water-quality protection practices on his farm, and Morrithel was named Transylvania County Conservation Farm of the Year in 2001.

Caldwell says that although the old paradigm seemed to offer conservation easements only to rich developers or landowners, after touring Morrithel, many farmers begin to view easements more positively. Also, an endowment to the conservancy means that legal costs for the transaction are paid.

"Land-rich but cash-poor land owners can waive development rights and pass the land to the next generation and realize significant savings on estate tax transfers," he says.

"They often apply BMPs they see there to their own property to improve water quality and reduce taxes and property value so they can pass undeveloped farmland to their kids."

Morrithel Meadows, he says, proves such easements can help keep a working family farm exactly that.