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Rick Merrill, real estate broker and land conservancy advocate, dies of cancer

Rick Merrill Rick Merrill

FLAT ROCK — Richard Sumner “Rick” Merrill Jr., who came to Henderson County as a VISTA volunteer in the early 1970s and would go on to enjoy a long and successful career in real estate, serve as chair of Flat Rock’s first planning board, lead Historic Flat Rock Inc. and become a tireless advocate for land conservancy, died early Monday at his home of an aggressive form of brain cancer, friends and family members said. He was 73.

The son of Ivy and Richard S. Merrill, Rick Merrill was born in Scotch Plains, N.J. When he was a young engineering student at Cornell University in 1970, Merrill attended a presentation about service to the poor and soon was heading south for training. In Atlanta, trainers “said something about mountains and waterfalls. JoAnne and I both raised our hands,” Merrill told writer Bruce Holliday for a profile in his Flat Rock Together blog.

In that moment at VISTA, Merrill had set his heading on two things that would last for the rest of his life. JoAnne would become his life partner and Henderson County their lifetime home. Rick and JoAnne accepted posts in Green River and Clear Creek, respectively, and married two years later, in 1972.

After he obtained his real estate license in November 1971, Merrill embarked on a career that would combine the sale of larger tracts of land with his innate desire to see natural acreage preserved.

“I was enjoying helping people figure out how to move on with their lives, particularly dealing with folks that had larger tracts of land,” he said. “They needed someone like me to help them maximize their return. And that's what got me into land development."

Merrill had been a successful real estate broker with Beverly-Hanks since 1992, barely slowing down even as he passed age 70.

"He loved dealing in land. He was active on the Carolina Conservancy board for a long number of years," said his friend Steve Dozier, a fellow broker at Beverly Hanks. "He was a great agent," closing $10-20 million a year in property sales for the past several years. "Always willing to share his knowledge."

In 2004, Rick and Joanne worked with Conserving Carolina to place eight acres of their land in the area of the old Judge Mitchell King estate into a conservation easement.

“I learned firsthand how these things work and what they can offer to individuals and how they can save land in perpetuity,” he said. “I realized that I had a real passion for conserving land.”

In addition to his own property, Merrill was responsible for directing 10 more projects — totaling 778 acres — to Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy — Conserving Carolina’s predecessor — and also convinced his next-door neighbors in Flat Rock to place a conservation easement on their property.

As he worked with real estate clients, Merrill always presented the option of conserving land, preaching the lasting benefit. “They can save land, save their legacy and save money,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

In addition to his land conservancy work, Merrill was active in the local real estate and home builders associations, served as chair of Flat Rock's planning board, served on the Apple Country Greenway Commission and served as president of Historic Flat Rock Inc. Among his notable achievements during the three years he led Historic Flat Rock was coordinating the purchase of the historic Mountain Lodge Estate when it was in a state of disrepair and neglect. HFR then sold the property to Lori and Julien Smyth, who beautifully restored the Rutledge Drive home, saving an antebellum asset that's now nearly 200 years old.

During the past seven years, Merrill served as vice president and president, in-house construction manager and volunteer intake interviewer for Interfaith Assistance Ministry, the crisis intervention agency and food pantry.

“Rick's service began in 2016, when he began serving as an ‘owner's representative,’ overseeing the construction of IAM's $3.3 million crisis services facility,” IAM Director Elizabeth Willson Moss said in nominating Merrill for a statewide volunteer award. “His time easily exceeded 20 hours some weeks for that project, which was challenged by problems with contractors and time delays. ... One day, I drove up to the building and Rick was digging a hole with a post hole digger, mixing cement and erecting a new mailbox."

"Ever the servant leader, Rick worked most of the last year without my knowing that he was suffering from brain cancer," she added. "He joyfully attended a committee meeting at IAM just two weeks ago."

In addition to his wife, JoAnne, Merrill is survived by his three children, Jeremy (Lee Ann), Elissa and Julie; brothers Greg and Peter (Sandra), sisters Cynthia, Bonnie and Karen; and two grandchildren, Malcolm and Martin. The family will announce a memorial service at a later date. Donations in Rick Merrill’s honor may be made to Interfaith Assistance Ministry, Conserving Carolina or other land conservancies and Historic Flat Rock Inc.

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The Lightning is grateful for the reporting of Flat Rock Together, whose profile of Rick Merrill in October 2020 provided quotes and background for this news obituary.