HILLSBOROUGH — On the outskirts of Hillsborough, just past where Interstates 40 and 85 merge, sit 114 acres of rolling farmland with a view of Occoneechee Mountain, the Triangle’s highest point.
It has everything a developer could want – access to major highways, a historic former colonial capital less than a mile away and two winding creeks that come together just ahead of the Eno River.
But this property isn’t going to be turned into a subdivision, shopping center or office park. Several public entities and nonprofit organizations raised $655,000 for conservation easements that keep much of the property as farmland, and another $100,000 for fences, buffers and other associated costs to protect the farm’s two creeks and a patch of wetland from pollution.
“When there are a lot of people buying in, you tend to get a heck of a better project for everybody,” said Kurt Schlimme, the conservation director for the Eno River Association, a nonprofit partner in the project.
The conservation project is the latest among several that have protected thousands of acres along the Eno River and its tributaries over the past two decades. That’s good news for residents and businesses who take their water from the Eno and Falls Lake, the manmade reservoir for the city of Raleigh and other Wake County communities. Hillsborough is just downriver from the stretches of Eno tributaries – Sevenmile and Rocky Run creeks – that the project protects.
When land along public drinking water sources is protected, there’s less need to spend money cleaning the water before it gets to your tap. Falls Lake already suffers from oversedimentation and other pollutants, largely from Ellerbe Creek, which flows through central Durham and serves as a conduit for nutrient- and sediment-laden stormwater that races off paved roads, parking lots and fertilized lawns.
Ellerbe Creek’s problems illustrate the need to protect land along waterways before urbanization takes hold. There’s a lot less that needs to be undone with farmland.
In the case of Dennis and Linda Brooks’ farm, near where Ben Johnston Road splits from Dimmocks Mill Road just west of Hillsborough, the clean-up meant placing electric fencing between the cattle and the creeks, and drilling a well that pumps to several troughs so the cattle have water to drink.
Cattle can be a big problem for water quality. Their manure is full of nutrients such as nitrogen that pollute the water, they trample or eat nutrient-absorbing vegetation along the streams, and they cause banks to erode just by moseying over to the water’s edge.
Orange County officials first went to the Brookses more than 10 years ago to ask if they would be interested in selling conservation easements to protect the creeks. At that time, the couple said they weren’t ready to take that step.
“We said, ‘Fine, keep us in mind,’ and 10 years later, they contacted us and said, ‘We’d like to hear what you had in mind,’ ” said Rich Shaw, the county’s land conservation manager.
In the end, the Brookses, who have a saddle shop in addition to raising horses and cattle, also donated an acre of land toward the project. The other partners are the Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District, town of Hillsborough, city of Raleigh, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the N.C. Forest Service, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.
The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter reports conservation efforts are preserving nearly 4 million acres of land across the state, but last year state lawmakers made deep cuts to the trust funds often used to protect land from development. Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the conservancy, said the cuts left the funds with 85 percent less money than the previous year.
The biggest source for land conservation, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, for example, was cut from $50 million last year to $11.25 million for the next two years. That fund was also prohibited from using its allotment for land preservation, except to purchase land for buffers along military installations.
Lawmakers have said the tough economy forced them to make hard choices in their nearly $20 billion spending plan. But Crane said the tough economy also presents an opportunity for land preservationists, if they have money to spend, because land prices drop.
“It’s a good time to purchase property,” Crane said. “More bang for the buck.”