Durham News, July. 26, 2008

Open spaces saved forever

Land protected from development

by David Newton, Correspondent

Bill Lee is an electrician-farmer who finishes many days of his double life sitting on the front porch of his white, two-story farmhouse in northern Orange County, mere feet from the Durham County line, looking out at the past and the future.

His gaze carries across Bill Poole Road (named for his late maternal grandfather) and continues across his cornfield into Durham County to end at a towering buffer of white oaks, poplar and ash along Buffalo Creek.

Lee's acreage on Buffalo Creek is part of his late grandfather's farm and his childhood memories. Now, thanks to Lee's love of the land, government open space programs and the expertise of a private real estate company called Unique Places, 144 acres of the 203-acre farm are protected as open space in perpetuity.

That was not the case a year ago for the land, much of which is within the watershed of Little River, a source for Durham's drinking water. What Lee has done with the land is an example of how open space can be preserved in today's go-go development culture.

"It's wild," Poole, 45, says of his four-year journey through the bureaucracy.

Durham County is in a particularly tight fight for open space. It is among the state's smallest counties in area and its population has grown 15 percent since 2000, to nearly 260,000.

Statewide, meanwhile, farms are fading. From 2003 to 2006 North Carolina lost 5,500 farms totaling 300,000 acres, according to the N.C. Agricultural Development & Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Lee's story illustrates the squeeze on open space and farming families. His uncle died in 2003. Developers came a-knocking, and Lee's cousins were willing to part with the 107 acres that were part of the Bill Poole (1902-61) farm.

"I couldn't stand the thought of it being developed," Lee recalls. But he didn't have the money to buy the land from his cousins.

Through a friend, he learned of government programs that buy development rights to land, thus lowering the market value and making it easier to buy for farming and open space.

The Durham County real estate and open space office already had its eye on the land, which was designated for watershed protection in the county commissioners' 2004 Little River Corridor Open Space Plan. Guenevere Abernathy, who launched Unique Places LLC in 2005, was alerted and soon began talking with Lee's cousins and eventually Lee.

In 2006, Unique Places bought the 107 acres at market price. Because of its watershed designation, the land was eligible for funding programs that buy development rights.

Unique Places then sold 18 of those acres for development at market price and deeded 7 acres to the county for watershed protection.

That left the 82 acres for Lee. Unique Places sold the development rights on 50 acres to Durham County and the Farm and Ranch Land Preservation Program. The development rights on the remaining 32 acres were purchased by N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program.

An affordable price

Stripped of its development potential, the market value on the 82 acres dropped and became affordable for Lee. Abernathy says selling development rights typically cuts the value of land 40 to 60 percent.

To raise money to buy the 82 acres, Lee sold the development rights to 62 acres in Orange County that were part of his farm, placing that land under the open-space umbrella as well. In late 2007 he purchased the 82 acres.

Here's where it all ends up:

* Unique Places made a profit through the development of the 18 acres and selling the development rights of the 82 acres.

* Lee now has a 203-acre farm straddling the county line.

* Water quality has been protected, and northern Durham County has 89 acres of new open space in perpetuity. Orange County has gained 62 acres of open space.

"It's a combination of everything coming together to make it a profitable project," Abernathy explains. "The human element is part of what motivated us and what is great about the story. Bill loves the land and is a great steward of the property."

Lee returns Abernathy's compliments.

"Hadn't been for her, I don't know that I'd stuck it out," he said. "The power of prayer really worked. It's [the land] benefiting more people like this than if it's developed."

Lee's protected land fits into planners' larger goal of contiguous green spaces.

Lee's land along Buffalo Creek is adjacent to 26 acres that Patricia Russell had designated as open space in 2005.

Lee says that if he owned 400 acres, he thinks he could live from farming, which is his dream. The reality is he and his three-employee electrical company generate enough income for him to live while he farms part-time on 65 acres of soybeans, corn and hay.

A love of farming

Lee is a blocky, sturdy man who doesn't consider himself a tree-hugger and definitely isn't a publicity hound. (He declined to be photographed for this article.) He's matter-of-fact, but his affection for the farming life is obvious.

"I've always loved it," he says of farming, as his boxer-lab mix, Wilbur, swirls around his golf cart during a tour of the farm. "I love being outside."

His late father, Bill Sr., farmed and drove a truck for Pilot Freight. Part of Lee's childhood was spent at his grandfather's farm tramping through the woods and rabbit hunting, a joy he hopes his 10-year-old son, John will know.

"One hundred years from now, where is any open land going to be?" Lee asks. "Going to come a time when we need farms."