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As the Eno River Association celebrates its 40th anniversary this week with a sold-out gala, a new generation of leaders faces new challenges.

Eno puzzler 

Eno River Association founders saved the Durham waterway 40 years ago. Now, the park they created is becoming a magnet for development.

The City of Durham once planned to create a reservoir by damming the Eno River, shown here at Green's Hole.

Photo by Derek Anderson

The City of Durham once planned to create a reservoir by damming the Eno River, shown here at Green's Hole.

The North Carolina Room at the Durham County Library is a throwback to decades past. The dusty glass chandeliers, fading faux wood paneling and aqua green carpet evoke bell bottoms and wide lapels. And the books that fill the stacks contain countless bits of history and relics from old times. Among those books is a bound collection of the first journals of the Eno River Association, which, back in 1973, was more commonly known by its proper name, the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley. Writings in the journals appear in typewriter font beneath hand-drawn calligraphy titles. Pen-and-ink sketches of flora grace the edges of the very first article from Vol. 1, No. 1, "Wildflower Hike Along the Eno." The piece's opening paragraph reads like a manifesto: "Durham has a treasure and Durham has a dream. The treasure is the Eno River that flows around the northern limits of the city. The dream is a State Park that will include a twenty-mile free run of river to be preserved in its undeveloped condition. The Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley, a dedicated group, is intent on making the dream a reality."

Thirty-three years after those words were published and a little more than 40 years after the Eno River Association was founded, it seems that dream has come true. The Eno River State Park, which in its pristine wilderness is itself a throwback, slices through an urban and suburban landscape that stretches from northwest Orange County down to Durham. It owes its existence to a grassroots movement that took on the City of Durham's plans to dam the Eno River and create a reservoir. The fight quickly evolved into a quest for a state park and continues today in the organization's push to acquire more parkland around the river.

Over the years, the association has grown from its grassroots origins into a modern and professional nonprofit. And as it celebrates its 40th anniversary this week with a sold-out gala, a new generation of leaders faces new challenges. No longer fighting off a municipality making incursions into virgin territory, they deal with the increasing difficulty of obtaining river frontage to expand and connect the park—the result of soaring property values and landowners who seek to capitalize on the association's relentless push for land. And as ongoing negotiations show, leaders of the Eno River Association have been put in a position where they have to support suburban development to preserve their dream and treasure, the river.

click to enlarge Margaret Nygard on the banks of the river she worked to protect - PHOTO BY DUNCAN HERON
  • Photo by Duncan Heron
  • Margaret Nygard on the banks of the river she worked to protect

When Margaret and Holger Nygard purchased their home on Cole Mill Road in 1963, they knew the City of Durham was hoping to one day acquire their property to build a reservoir. That didn't stop them from moving in. Nor did their arrival stop the city from proceeding with its plans. In May 1966, Durham purchased its first piece of land along the Eno with plans to dam the river by 1970.

But the Nygards and their new neighbors quickly organized themselves. "What we did essentially was to oppose the fathers of the city," says Holger Nygard, now 86. "We bucked City Hall."

The first of many protests was in August 1966. "We began speaking at City Hall meetings on Tuesday nights," Nygard says. "For a space of two or three months, I had a speech going every council meeting."

In October of that year, Margaret Nygard founded the Association for the Preservation of the Eno. Holger Nygard remembers those early battles, but it was his late wife, Margaret, who gave the organization its lifeblood. "In the beginning it was a one-woman show," says Duncan Heron, an early member of the organization (www.enoriver.org).

Margaret Nygard developed a shrewd political sense and used sophisticated tactics in her advocacy for the river, writes local historian and Eno neighbor Jean Anderson in her book, Durham County. She led members to lobby the local planning commission, the City Council, the local press, and their friends and neighbors in Durham and Orange counties. She also waged an educational campaign, acquainting the public with the river's historical and natural resources through hikes, rafting trips and slideshows.

Association members eventually seized on the idea of a linear state park along the Eno River. "There had to be some entity involved that could not be affected by Durham using the power of eminent domain," says Don Cox, longtime board member and former president of the association. "That's where the idea of a state park came in."

Over the course of the next few years, members worked to convince public officials and landowners that the park was worth creating. Still, the City of Durham was unrelenting in its quest to build a reservoir. And it took time to convince some landowners that the park wouldn't bring an "onslaught of hippies and orgies and drugs," as Cox says some feared.

Eno River State Park at the Cole Mill Road Access - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

In 1972, the Eno River Association formed an alliance with the Nature Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization that bought and held endangered lands until permanent solutions could be found for their preservation. When the Eno River Association became the Nature Conservancy's first project in North Carolina, the association acquired stature in the eyes of the state and was seriously listened to.

The Nature Conservancy accepted land gifts totaling 116 acres, bought nearly 50 acres on its own and acquired land options for 100 more acres. The property set up an area for the linear park, much of it right in the middle of the land Durham hoped to use for the reservoir. Eventually, the city realized it was waging a losing battle.

In June 1973, after a cooperative effort between the City of Durham, Orange County, the State of North Carolina, the Nature Conservancy and the Eno River Association, Gov. James Holshouser welcomed the Eno River State Park into the state parks system.

For the next 20-odd years, the association worked to protect and expand the park. By 1995, it was more than 2,000 acres.

Margaret Nygard died the day of the association's annual meeting in 1995. She had been scheduled to present a slide show on development of the state park, but when the meeting's attendees noticed her absence, they started the meeting without her, not knowing what had happened earlier in the day. Near the end of the gathering, Dan Cook, superintendent of the Eno State Park, announced that Nygard had died of a heart attack. She was 70.

Amid the sudden grief, there were calls to forge ahead in the grand tradition of the founder. But beneath the surface there were doubts about whether the organization could continue. For so many, Nygard was the Eno River Association. "There was a vacuum after Margaret died," says Robin Jacobs, the association's current executive director. "There was a lot of concern if the organization could pull it together and keep going. They couldn't afford it, but they pressed ahead."

Money was an immediate issue because board members knew that no one would work like Margaret had worked without compensation. "[Margaret] and the people that were working with her spent so many years doing the work themselves," Jacobs says. "It was a big leap to take on the financial burden of adding new staff."

"If we were going to continue our function, we had to organize in a more formal manner," Cox says. "And we couldn't ask anyone to do what Margaret had done."

West Point on the Eno - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Board members created an executive director position, as well as positions for land acquisition, education and outreach. The new employees joined the coordinator of the annual Festival for the Eno.

The shift in the composition of the organization led to a shift in culture, as well. No longer the strict domain of longtime denizens of the Eno, the association hired young professionals with formal education in environmental science, education and land acquisition. The old-timers sensed a changing of the guard. "Everyone continued and we got new blood," Holger Nygard says. "The people that took it over were more interested in making a corporation out of it."

"We lost the personal touch," Nygard says. "It ceased to be a grassroots organization and it became something more familiar to city people." Nygard holds an emeritus position on the board but says he doesn't attend the meetings or think much about the Eno River Association these days. He does concede that the organization is generally going in the right direction, especially in terms of its rapid land acquisition.

Today's association measures its success largely by the progress it has made toward completing the state park master plan, a map that indicates privately held land that the state would like to acquire and add to the park. The group buys land or land options in the park master plan and later sells them to the state, helping to speed up land acquisition for the state's slow-moving bureaucracy. At almost 4,000 acres, the park is a little more than half of its target size of about 7,000 acres. Most of the land directly abutting the river has already been acquired.

Despite the fact that families sometime donate property, the biggest impediment to acquiring new land is money. The association's main sources of revenue are support from the membership and donors; proceeds from the annual Festival for the Eno, which vary from $30,000 to $70,000 depending on the weather; and income from rental properties. And the group has benefited from state trust fund money because it spends most of its efforts developing the state park. But the rapid suburbanization of the area is causing property values to soar and stretching cash thin. "Development is happening so fast," says Jacobs. "Land prices are rising all the time all over the state and especially here in the Triangle."

That development is happening in more and more rural areas of the counties, says Klugh Jordan, director of land protection for the association. "We have had to compete with developers for quite a while to buy the remaining privately owned smaller properties along the Eno east of Hillsborough and in Durham County," Jordan says. "But we are now finding that large agricultural properties in the northern rural parts of both counties ... are commanding development prices." She adds that speculation on these lands means that developers are willing to pay higher than market value and some landowners will only sell at these inflated prices.

Making matters worse, each addition to the park forces land prices further up because so many people want to live next to protected wilderness, says Rich Shaw, who works with land acquisition for Orange County (and is married to Holly Reid, president of the Eno River Association's board). "The name associated with the Eno River is a marketable name for land to be sold because of the association with the state park and the history of land conservation," Shaw says. "For that reason, it probably fetches a better price than other rivers and streams in the county."

The Eno River Association is currently in delicate negotiations with the Brame family, which has owned land along the river for as long as anyone can remember. Until quite recently, the Brames refused to sell their land to the association or the state because the payoff would not be big enough.

"My dad wanted his grandchildren to see some financial benefit from it," Robert Brame says. "After my dad died, I got the ball rolling again." In the last couple of years, negotiations have moved beyond the decades-long stalemate.

Two large Brame tracts are prime targets for the Eno River Association, since both fill in key missing links in the state park master plan. The northern piece of land is about 46 acres along the river. To the south there is another 90-acre tract that also touches the river and extends to the east. A strip of the state park connects the two tracts.

Under a tentative contract, the association will buy the northern 46 acres at approximately 35 percent more than the appraised value. The Brames will donate 20 acres of the southern tract—the part of the land that touches the river—on the condition that Orange County approves a subdivision on the remaining 70 acres. The Eno River Association would then sell the 46- and 20-acre tracts to the state for inclusion in the park, pulling in enough cash to almost break even on the deal. But there's one condition: It has to support the subdivision.

"I and everybody here sympathize with people in that neighborhood who do not want a housing development," says executive director Jacobs. "If I lived there, I would feel that way." But, she adds, "It's in the interest of the park that the Brames can make what they want to make and the park can get what it really needs."

Other board members agree. "I think it's one of those compromises we have to make in order to achieve our primary goal of setting aside the most critical lands," Cox says. "If we oppose that entirely, we would not be able to acquire critical land along the river."

Bob Brame says his original intention was to develop all of the land.

Jacobs feels confident that the subdivision won't cause too much harm to its surroundings. "It's comforting for me to know Orange County isn't just going to let them do anything they want to do," she says.

The Brames have not yet filed concept plans with Orange County, and county planning officials say they can't talk about subdivisions without paperwork in hand. Neither did Jeff Peloquin, the developer, want to divulge many details about his plans. He did say that each home in the subdivision would probably have a three-acre lot, if not larger, which would allow for about 23 homes. "We are hat in hand," Peloquin says. "Let's see if we can have a bonafide win-win-win situation where the landowner, Eno River Association, and the state and Orange County all win."

click to enlarge The Eno River Association has helped to set aside almost 4,000 acres for the Eno River State Park. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • The Eno River Association has helped to set aside almost 4,000 acres for the Eno River State Park.

But residents with homes off of Cabe's Ford Road, where the new development will be, say they want to win, too. "I understand that there are several agendas here," says Connie Riley, who for 20 years has lived with her family on a 30-acre wooded plot adjacent to the Brame tracts. "But I think that the folks that are being left out are the other property owners."

Riley learned about the Brames' development plans when she saw surveyors on the property about a year ago. She later met with other neighbors who shared her concerns about development. "They're upset about it," Riley says. "First and foremost they see it as a safety issue."

Cabe's Ford Road, paved with tar and gravel, is about a quarter-mile long. "It's just not suitable for a development to be right there amongst us," says Riley, who has heard the development will actually be 40 to 45 homes. "I don't think the road can support it." Peloquin says he plans to submit the concept plan by March, the preliminary plan by November and the final plan by March or April of next year. State officials say they'll have purchase money in place by early 2008.

"We're at the point now where we're afraid to continue to wait," Riley says. "I don't want it to get too far without us having a voice in it. I think we will have a meeting soon."

Neighbors credit the Eno River Association for negotiating with the Brames and at least protecting the river, but still lament the turn of events. "I think it's a shame that they have to deal in big business," Riley says of the association. "Previous owners donated or sold very reasonably. I think it's a sign of the times that the Eno has to pay so much. I think people are starting to take advantage."

Cox sees the association having to make more of these kinds of deals in the future. "Everyone now realizes that if they have a housing development adjacent to park land, it increases the value significantly," he says.

In some ways, the Eno River Association is damned by its own success. "People read about the deals in the paper," Jacobs says, "and think they can make the same kinds of money."

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