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Growth pressure sparks support for farmland preservation, conservation fund


Henderson County residents who responded to a survey about priorities to guide long-range land-use planning strongly support farmland and other open land conservation.

The Board of Commissioners have now heard that sentiment in person — in a big and passionate way. An overflow crowd packed the Historic Courthouse meeting room on Sept. 6 to tell their elected leaders that a new comprehensive plan guiding growth for the next 20 years ought to do everything possible to block sprawl and protect farmland, especially what one landowner called the county’s “calling card” apple orchards.
“We’re open to all input as we have been with the surveys and everything and we don’t take those surveys lightly,” Commissioner Rebecca McCall said. “I’ve gotten people sending me emails saying that, ‘You received 7,000 surveys and you’re ignoring them.’ No, we’re not. Preserving all of that is very important. We need to maintain who we are. And that is important.”
The question that’s likely to come before the board as it nears adoption of Comp Plan 2045 is how to accomplish farmland preservation. Advocates for farmland preservation cite a sense of urgency given the rapid growth the county is projected to experience in the next 20 years. (Official projection: 32,392 more people.)
“I don’t see any other choice at this point in time (but) to protect the really long term with some sort of purchase of development rights,” said Mark Williams, executive director of AgHC, the county’s farm-advocacy nonprofit.
Williams has looked at how other counties and states have set up farmland protection plans and sees a forecast of big expense.
“It would have to be a program that that’s going to have to be significant in terms of the funds that would be made available, and that’s part of the challenge,” he said.
Property that might sell for $10,000-15,000 an acre as farmland would fetch many times that from a subdivision developer.
In a typical development rights purchase, “the farmer would still maintain ownership of the property,” Williams said. “He would just be selling the rights to develop it. In essence, what the land can be used for from that point forward would be just for an agricultural use only.”
The state’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation, which aims to save farms from development, lacks the capital to make much of a dent in the problem.
“The pool of funds that they have available is just inadequate to have a big impact,” Williams said. “It’s gonna take a lot more money. It’s going to have to happen quick, because we see just the rapid loss — and once it’s lost, it’s lost. It’s just not going back into agriculture at all.”
Williams estimates that 500 to 800 acres of farmland have been lost to residential or industrial use over the past several years, including the old Fullam dairy and Brittain farm in Mills River, Tap Root dairy outside Fletcher, the Garrison orchard off Upward Road and Hudgens farm off McMurray Road.
“With land values being what they are, with influence from the development of residential growth as well as industrial growth, that puts a lot of pressure on farms whenever you start pushing values up (to) some of the figures that we’ve seen in recent years,” Williams said. “It really makes farmers question, ‘Should I just cash out, let that be my 401k or keep fighting?’ And if you don’t have kids right behind you to take over then there’s that much more pressure just to go ahead and cash out.”

Saving farmland on parallel tracks

Grow Good, a grassroots organization formed to help shape the new comp plan, Conserving Carolina, former Rep. Chuck McGrady and his successor, Rep. Tim Moffitt, have been focusing on farmland preservation on different but parallel tracks.
“I think we noticed during the pandemic how fragile our supply chain is, and when you really dig into ‘Are we a nation of abundance or are we a nation of dependence?’ — we’re growing very close to being dependent on other countries for our basics, fruits and vegetables,” Moffitt said.
Like Williams, Moffitt observes that the “pressure to take agricultural land out of agriculture and put it into multifamily residential development or single-family residential development is very intense. And we need to resist that.”
Moffitt’s solution is a statewide bill to create a farmland preservation program. He’s working on details now, with guidance from farm advocates like Williams locally and state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler in Raleigh.
Moffitt discovered as he worked on his concept that McGrady and Conserving Carolina were “working on the same thing, but in a different way.”
“Chuck and I got together and talked about it and I agreed with him that Henderson County could do something quicker but I can do something more substantive,” he said. “But it just takes a while to get things through the General Assembly, whereas the county can do something more immediate that is probably in keeping with the sensitivity of the timeframe we’re on because Henderson County’s in the crosshairs of rapid residential development.”
Moffitt says the more immediate solution may be to use the new comp plan to protect as much farmland as possible and prevent sprawl.
“We don’t want that. I support infill development within our established municipalities,” he said. Agriculture “is the fabric of who we are and we cannot afford to have that go away and we’ve lost too much already. … I’ve suggested to our county commissioners to be very aggressive regarding the 2045 plan and to not play defense to protect what’s left of agriculture but to go ahead and start establishing greater agriculture districts in general so we can take some inactive lands and return those back to production.”
Moffitt, who is running the state Senate in the Nov. 8 election, is confident that his statewide bill will enjoy broad support. Identifying a robust ongoing revenue source is the biggest challenge.
“It has a lot of support in both the House and the Senate and candidly has a lot of support across the political spectrum — folks that understand the need to protect agriculture, protect our land from development — and I think that everyone will see the wisdom of this and I’m looking forward to working toward making it happen.”

Study land conservation fund

Kieran Roe, the executive director of Conserving Carolina, said the Board of Commissioners could seize the opportunity to advance land conservation at a time when public support is shown to be high.
“Things like conservation of natural areas (and) preserving the beauty of Henderson County ranked very high among the priorities of people who responded to the survey,” he said. “So to me that says that the county in doing this planning work should be finding ways to, more proactively than they have I think, incentivize conservation, create programs and planning tools that will do more than ever to preserve the scenic, natural character.”
As it adopts the long-range plan, Roe added, commissioners could authorize the first step toward a land conservation fund.
“One thing I’d love to see come out of the comp plan, if nothing else, is a recommendation that the county do an investigation and create a process for determining what might be the best way to fund a (land conservation) program,” he said. “Because obviously we’re not going to get a program in place by the time the plan is finished. But I think there’s a priority within that plan to advance the idea and do research, etc. To me, that would be a great thing to include in the plan.”
Williams, of AgHC, points out that agriculture production is knocking on the door at $1 billion in value. That includes tourism spinoff — Garden Jubilee and the N.C. Apple Festival, for instance — plus wineries, Upick orchards and roadside stands. Greenhouse production is proliferating, too, shifting agriculture into a year-round enterprise.
“I’m staying actively involved to understand what’s taking place and what’s going into this (long-range) planning and just to kind of bring it to their attention and make them aware of the double-edged sword here,” he said. “Most farmers would love to see their land stay in farms. But as the old adage goes, land is a farmer’s 401k.”
Moffitt knows that to match an offer from a developer standing at the barn door his statewide program will need plenty of cash.
“When you’re starting a program like this, your initial costs are going to be high,” he concedes. “There’s a couple of ways that you can go about that. You can identify the revenue source, get it in place, then flow revenue bonds against that, and that allows you to do more sooner versus a pay-as-you-go strategy, which is certainly more thoughtful. But the development pressures are immediate and they’re now and we need to be able to meet that pressure head on.”