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The Trail Less Traveled 

Why arent we saving enough open space?

Down Lake Wheeler Road, a couple of miles south of the Raleigh Beltline, Yates Mill stands on Steep Hill Creek as a bit of living history--the history of agriculture and mill construction in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the history of open-space protection in the 20th and 21st.

When it was built, around 1756, Yates Mill was one of the first water-powered grist mills in Wake County. It stayed in operation for more than two centuries, becoming the last surviving mill of perhaps 60 in the county. Now it's the object of a major restoration-and-protection project by the county, N.C. State University and a nonprofit support group called Yates Mill Associates.

When it's finished, Yates Mill will be the jewel in a brilliant setting of open-space protection. A 600-acre county park is planned, with a visitors' center in an old hunting lodge and educational exhibits on the ecology of a watershed system. Kids will be invited to seine in the mill pond and add their catch to an ongoing study of water quality. Best of all, the park will be joined to the 1,000-acre Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory, a pasture and woodlands owned by N.C. State and used for its various dairy and crop-research programs.

The only thing lacking? Money, says Rebeccah Cope, Wake County's project manager. Finishing the project will take at least $4 million more. After a decade on the drawing boards, it's only now starting to take shape. Hurricane Fran helped, ironically: After the storm ripped through in 1996, smashing the dam above the mill and destroying the mill pond, federal funds rebuilt both of them better than before, and also helped pay for restoration of the damaged sawmill.

On a sunny morning in early April, members of Wake County's Open Space Advisory Committee are visiting the mill site. It's part of their tour of the Swift Creek watershed area that lies across the county's southwestern tier. The committee's mission is to help the county's elected officials decide what land to protect from development. One step is to see what's already been protected--and how it's happened. So the committee is visiting a few places where open space is being saved, and getting plenty of glimpses along the way of the challenges it faces, trying to save land in a place where every spare acre seems to be for sale.

I'm along for the ride, trying to get a handle on a big question: Is the Triangle doing enough to preserve open space in a time of relentless sprawl?

Among the committee members is Kate Dixon, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC), a nonprofit that acquires land--or rights to land, in the form of what are called conservation easements--and protects it from development as a public trust. Dixon's group is just finishing up a report, "Open Space 2000," that I hope will tell me how we're doing and what more needs to be done.

At the same time, I'm waiting for Gov. Jim Hunt to put some specific strategies--and money--behind his newly adopted goal of preserving 1 million acres of North Carolina land from development. I'm guessing that the governor will propose a major bond issue to pay for open-space protection. What better reason could there be to borrow money and pay it back over time than to buy land that would be ours for all time?

And what better example of land worth keeping than Yates Mill and the woods and the farmland beside it--an area that still constitutes, even this close to booming Raleigh, the quintessentially unspoiled country?

As our group admires Yates Mill, committee chair Sig Hutchinson talks about four good reasons for protecting land from private development. The first is environmental protection: Leaving trees and vegetation along our riverbanks and streams helps keep the water clean, and helps keep pesticides and chemicals out. A second reason is recreational: We need parks, and we need trails. A third is cultural: Without farms, without woods, without access to rivers and trails, our quality of life is poorer. A fourth reason is history: We need to preserve open space so "our children and their children can enjoy the unique character and beauty we've seen in this land we call home," in the words of the TLC.

The Yates Mill-Lake Wheeler Road project satisfies all four purposes. Still, as our group ogles it, we're all aware that its completion could come at a cost to another conservation effort in the Triangle. N.C. State University is planning to acquire the last 252 acres for its field laboratory with some of the $14 million it expects to get from the sale of a 159-acre tract next to the new Entertainment and Sports Arena in Raleigh.

The sale is controversial (see "Land for swap"). Development next to the arena, likely to take the form of hotels, stores and apartments, would add traffic to a congested stretch of Interstate 40 and the Wade Avenue Extension. It might also threaten water quality in Richland Lake and Richland Creek, which flows through the tract, and upset the ecology of neighboring Schenck Forest, highly prized by conservationists for its beauty and its diverse species of trees. Community groups have been campaigning to stop the sale, or at least convince the university to hold back the creekbed and its feeder streams from development by attaching restrictive covenants to the sale.

To say the least, it's an unfortunate trade-off: saving more of the country at the expense of this island of tranquillity in the city. If money could be found, perhaps from Gov. Hunt's proposal, both pieces of land might be spared. But then, there are so many places that others might urge us to protect as well--and we can't afford them all, can we?

I'm reminded of that at the Greenview Pond "mitigation site," just down the road a-ways. John Connors, head of the Wake County Aububon Society, is on hand to greet us. "You're in the birdiest neighborhood in the Triangle," Connors says. "This land is kind of sacred from a natural history point of view." That's because it's one of the few large "wet meadows" we have left, and many birds need meadows--with a forest fringe to keep away the impact of development--to thrive.

Greenview came to be ours five years ago when the state Department of Transportation bought it--80 acres in all--to replace ("mitigate," in the legal parlance) other wetlands it was destroying by building Interstate 540, the Outer Loop, across northern Wake County. The Audubon Society made a deal with DOT that allows its members to manage the land, which mostly means that they fan out every so often with machetes and cut back vegetation so the meadow remains. The result is a place where ospreys and blue heron can co-exist with deer, and where the rare Savannah sparrow or Louisiana water thrush are spotted by neighboring homeowners with telescopes aimed out their back windows. The Audubon Society is raising money for a boardwalk and a limited trail system so more people can enjoy, but not disturb, the meadow. "We don't want this place to be just for the birds," Connors says, laughing. But, please, no dogs off the leash.

Eventually, DOT expects to pass ownership to the Triangle Land Conservancy, which also owns the 23-acre preserve our group visits next, Swift Creek Bluffs. "The incredible diversity of wildflowers here makes this a place of statewide significance," says Kate Dixon. The conservancy bought it for $150,000, its appraised value, from a developer who was building a subdivision that overlooks Swift Creek from the top of a steep hill. He got the money and a selling point: Your house will back up to a nature preserve. We--the public--got the developer to stay back from the bluff, helping protect the water quality and ecology of the creekbed.

Swift Creek flows down from Cary to Lake Wheeler, then east to the Neuse River in Johnston County. All through this part of Wake County, small farms extend from the roads to the bluffs. Everywhere you look, subdivisions are popping up, and bulldozers and "For Sale" signs tell you that the open space you see won't be here for long.

Should we be trying to save these farms? And if so, how?

Alongside Lake Wheeler, we reached a place that shows one way: Theys Farm. It's located at the end of Theys Road, a 102-acre homeplace of pastureland and treeline that Johnnie and Georgia Theys bought in 1949 for $18,000. Today, they could probably sell it for $50,000 an acre if they wanted to; landowners on either side of the road already have.

But the Theys family is not selling. "We just couldn't stand the thought of bulldozers here," says Georgia Theys. Instead, they are donating a conservation easement to the TLC. According to its terms, only two houses can ever stand on the farm--the one Johnnie and Georgia have lived in since they came there, and another one that they, or a future owner, will retain the right to build. Otherwise, this farm will forever remain a farm. The TLC, by taking the easement, must see to that.

Incredibly enough, this is the first time a farm in Wake County has ever been preserved this way.

"People think of the Triangle as a green and beautiful place. We are in danger of losing those qualities." So begins "Open Space 2000," the Triangle Land Conservancy's report that I was waiting for.

Development is far outstripping conservation in the Triangle, the TLC finds: Between 1987 and 1997, some 190,000 acres of land were "suburbanized" in the six-county region (including Chatham, Lee and Johnston counties); only 146,000 acres in the Triangle have ever been protected from development.

Federal land bought for Jordan Lake and Falls Lake many years ago accounts for most of our protected space, the report tells us. The biggest state-owned holdings--Umstead State Park and N.C. State's many properties--also go back a long time. Local governments--all six counties and the cities in them--control just 17,500 acres. The TLC and other nonprofit groups add another 2,700 acres. That's it.

Altogether, the Triangle comprises around 2 million acres. About one-fourth of it has been developed so far. At the rate we're going--about 10 percent more per decade--the rest won't last for long.

I expected "Open Space 2000" to tell us how much land we need to save before it's too late, and how much it would cost. But it doesn't. According to Kate Dixon, it couldn't. The reason: When TLC researchers probed the planning done by all the official bodies in the region, they found there is no plan to follow when trying to decide between urban parks and wooded countryside, between birdlands and creekbeds. To make matters worse, the information on these pieces of land is not collected in a way that allows you to frame the choices.

Before priorities can be identified, and goals set, two things have to happen. First, the land worth saving must be identified accurately. Second, the counties and cities in the region must make a plan--together--that reconciles competing priorities and connects the protected land in a coherent pattern.

They've never done that. They've never tried.

And the various plans for saving land in the Triangle's six counties don't add up to anywhere near the goal Gov. Hunt is setting for the state. Our share of saving 1 million acres statewide over the next 10 years would be about 63,000 acres, the TLC reports. All told, counties and municipalities in the region have plans to protect land at about half that rate--a combined total of about 16,000 acres over the next five years.

Is that enough? Dixon doubts it. But, she adds, there are so few people working on open-space protection in the Triangle that even saving 16,000 acres is beyond our current "organizational capacity."

"The thing that's really scary is that we don't know what we're losing," Dixon says. "If you ask me what's the status of our natural heritage lands, we just don't know. Where are the really good wildlife habitats? We don't know."

So the TLC is asking local governments to work together on a "Green Print" for the Triangle, a regional plan that identifies the places to save--and could set the stage for asking the public to help foot the bill.

How would a "Green Print" work? By categories, to begin with. Put the best wildlife biologists together and let them decide which land needs to be protected as habitat. Put the water-pollution specialists together and have them figure out how big the vegetative buffers should be alongside each river and stream. The rest of us can then decide how many parks and trails and farmlands and woodlands the Triangle needs to remain "green and beautiful"--and where they should be.

Once the various plans are hatched, they have to be put together into a network of connected spaces, Dixon says, not just left as a patchwork of islands in the sprawl. Animal trails need to fit together the same way humans trails do. Some species of flora and fauna can only survive if given a large space to occupy. "Green infrastructure," environmentalists say, should be treated the same way we treat roads, water mains, sewers and everything else we think of as critical to our quality of life.

Getting that infrastructure in place will be a daunting task. The TLC report is blunt on this subject: "Local governments in this area tend to resist working together on regional projects." Unless they do, it adds, "the likely result will be a system of fragmented, disconnected open spaces that do not function very well."

Asked whether this lack of coordination is a serious, deep-rooted problem or one that's in the process of being overcome, Dixon pauses for a moment. "I think it's a serious, deep problem. But if we don't overcome it, I don't see how the region can survive."

Dixon can point to some cases in which local governments are cooperating. Durham County, Orange County and Chapel Hill are working on a plan to protect New Hope Creek, which empties into Jordan Lake, the Triangle's biggest supply of drinking water. Durham and Orange counties are also working together to create a 390-acre park on the Little River, which crosses between them just below their northern boundaries.

While the overall picture for local open-space preservation is decidedly discouraging, there are a few more straws in the wind. Cary's new leaders are looking at a $15 million open-space plan. Raleigh is doing a little, and a smart-growth candidate did come within 200 votes of being elected mayor of the city last year. Even Wake County, traditionally laissez-faire when it comes to land use, is finally getting serious about protecting what's left of its countryside--if only because every new subdivision brings more kids who can't fit into the county's overcrowded schools.

Gov. Hunt's "Million Acre Initiative," issued last Thursday, dashed my hopes again. It does not propose a bond issue to pay for open-space acquisitions. And while there is a goal here, it's largely artificial--the 1 million number is catchy, but it would push the portion of North Carolina that's protected from development only from 8.6 percent to 12 percent.

Much like the "Open Space 2000" report, the initiative says there are two fundamental problems that must be addressed before anything else can happen: planning and coordination. Hunt is essentially calling on the General Assembly to give the next governor the power to pull things together, since he's on very short time.

For now, Hunt asks only that the legislature formally adopt the 1 million acre goal when it meets later this month, and then pass legislation giving the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) authority to organize a statewide effort and help local governments and nonprofits get together voluntarily. The state could then encourage local folks to save places that are "related to each other in a logical way," rather than a "patchwork" of unconnected ones, the governor says. DENR can also figure out how much a coordinated effort would cost, and how to pay for it. (A major bond issue is one possibility, along with impact fees on developers and real-estate transfer taxes when properties are sold.)

Presumably, state funds would be used to "encourage" locals to get with the program. But the only new money Hunt's asking for is $1 million for farmland preservation--a token amount, but more than the $750,000 appropriated for the last 10 years combined--and increases in the Clean Water Management Fund that would push it from $50 million a year to $100 million.

What should power land preservation in the future, Hunt says, is "the stewardship ethic of many landholders in North Carolina"--folks like the Theys, who can be persuaded to donate their property, or conservation easements, to local governments or nonprofit land trusts. This, says Hunt, is "a tremendous, and often untapped, financial resource."

But we won't create a new state agency to find those resources. Hunt says state funds should be used to build up the capacity of local organizations so they can do more--much more--of what they're already doing.

That jibes with Kate Dixon's thinking. But she warns that getting land donated, and managing it thereafter, is a time-consuming job that calls for the talents of the humble shepherd, the passionate preacher and the creative, persistent negotiator. TLC's report makes a major point of this. Local governments in the region are starting to think about getting easements donated, but often they hand the job to land-use planners or parks-and-recreation managers as a sideline to their regular duties. Dixon's group, with a staff of six, can do some of the work of persuading and negotiating. But it needs real government partnerships to do it best.

Not everyone, after all, is as passionate about their land as Johnnie and Georgia Theys. And not everyone, of course, can afford to give away the development rights like they can.

When I walked Theys Farm, Johnnie talked non-stop about his boyhood in New York, about growing up in a second-story walkup over a store and hearing the clanging trolley cars as they went by on the cobblestone streets below. As soon as he could afford it, he moved to the country. When he and Georgia married, they bought this farm and never looked back.

"This is paradise," Johnnie says, and he wants it stay that way. His children are grown and live elsewhere, so he's giving it to the world. "That's how I'm going to use my money," he says.

But most folks, like the developer above Swift Creek Bluffs, won't give away development rights without getting paid for them. Sooner or later, despite the governor's optimism about "untapped resources," open space costs money. And as my dad always said, it's not going to get any cheaper the longer we wait, because they're not making any more of it.

Sig Hutchinson is someone to see when you're feeling down about our prospects for preserving the Triangle's green spaces. The chair of Wake's Open Space Advisory Committee is one of those people who sees the progress ahead, not the trouble behind, and who pursues his goals with the energy of a mountain biker--which he is.

Hutchinson, like Dixon, sees hopeful signs that the region's many governments will work together. To wit: The project his group, the Triangle Greenways Council, calls "Circle the Triangle Trail." If it's ever finished, this trail could run about 150 miles in a big loop along the Neuse River on the east, to Falls Lake and Durham on the north, down the old American Tobacco Trail through Durham and the northeast corner of Chatham County on the west, and then through the Swift Creek watershed all the way back to the Neuse on the south.

Yes, it's been slow slogging, Hutchinson agrees. But just in the last year, things have been picking up. The biggest leap forward is on the 30-mile American Tobacco Trail (see "Be their guest"). This old railroad spur used to carry tobacco from Durham's warehouses down to the main rail line near Apex; now it's being turned into a linear park. Durham is almost finished with its leg, the biggest one. Wake County just agreed to start work on its portion and came up with $1 million--which, given the county's budget crunch, is next to amazing.

Once the Circle the Triangle Trail's "grid" is in place, Hutchinson says, local trail networks can be connected to it like muscles to bone. "The vision is to be able to get on a trail somewhere near where you live and ride a bike, walk, stroll, skate or horseback ride and get to anywhere else in the Triangle that you want to go." There won't be anything else like it in the world, he says.

Hutchinson doesn't know exactly how extensive the local networks will be--his council is trying to figure that out--but he does know that in Raleigh, where he lives, the city 20 years ago mapped out a visionary set of interconnected greenways covering almost 200 miles. Progress has been slow, but it's picking up speed: The City Council just approved a plan calling for $6 million to be spent on greenways over the next five years.

Some of that money will come from the state's Clean Water Management Fund, established four years ago by the General Assembly to pay for projects that would protect rivers and streams from pollution. Just last month, Raleigh announced the acquisition of 24 acres of land along the Neuse for $92,000, part of a $2.8 million grant the city got from the trust fund.

Hutchinson is trying to figure out how to build bike paths that would let people ride to their jobs in the Research Triangle Park from Durham, Cary and Raleigh. Last year, the Greenways Council convinced the state Department of Transportation to study 11 possible routes. Three emerged: From Durham along Cornwallis Road; from Cary via Davis Drive; and from Raleigh on Alexander Drive. The cost for all three would be about $2.5 million, shared by the state and local governments. "I believe we could cut car traffic in and out of RTP by 2 to 3 percent," Hutchinson says, "if people could get there on a bike instead."

All things are possible, this man likes to say. And the proof of it is that Raleigh just opened a walkway under Glenwood Avenue, connecting a trail by Crabtree Valley Mall to another one along the creek that parallels Lead Mine Road. "It's the Yellow Brick Road through the Emerald City!" Hutchinson laughs.

But where, one wonders, is the wizard when we need him? EndBlock

  • As the region sprawls and sprawls, open-space advocates are losing the battle to keep the Triangle green.


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