East Raleigh farm, valued at $3.7 million, donated to city for nature preserve

ccampbell@newsobserver.comDecember 9, 2013 

  • Take a look

    The City of Oaks foundation enlisted the help of video production students at Enloe High School to make a short documentary about the Kellam-Wyatt Farm easement. The video is online at vimeo.com/79991621.

— Bob Kellam and Susan Wyatt’s 58-acre farm in East Raleigh is surrounded by subdivisions, a mobile home park and a Food Lion shopping center.

But those suburban neighbors are barely noticeable from the bucolic property that’s been in Kellam’s family for generations. Two ponds draw a host of waterfowl, while dense woods and an active farm field are magnets for other wildlife. A rooster’s crow drowns out the hum of traffic from New Bern Avenue and U.S. 264.

The prime land between downtown Raleigh and Knightdale has long been eyed by developers; its real estate value has skyrocketed to $3.7 million as the city has grown. But Kellam and Wyatt are determined to keep the land untouched for generations to come.

The couple announced a conservation easement last week that eventually will donate the property to Raleigh’s City of Oaks Foundation, a nonprofit formed to accept land donations to the city. When Kellam and Wyatt eventually leave the home, the farm will become a nature preserve, environmental education center and sustainable farming incubator.

“We would like for the farm to remain a sanctuary for wildlife and a place where nature education and conservancy can be taught,” Kellam told the City Council recently.

The conservation easement will likely be one of the last under a state conservation tax credit program that expires Dec. 31 – part of a Republican package of tax code changes signed by Gov. Pat McCrory this summer.

The tax credit, which has been on the books since the 1980s, allows individual property owners to subtract up to $250,000 from their state income taxes over five years. The credit comes on top of the standard deductions for charitable donations.

The program made it easier for many donors to pass up the millions offered by developers. The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, a nonprofit group, estimates the credit led to the preservation of 200,000 acres statewide.

“It was the tipping point for a number of donations,” said Kevin Brice, director of the City of Oaks Foundation.

Two other gifts

The Kellam-Wyatt Farm on North Rogers Lane will join two other gifts made to the city in recent years. The Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve in North Raleigh is already open to the public for nature programs and hiking. And the Joslin Garden near Five Points will join the city’s park system in the years to come.

While such donations are increasingly common, Brice said the Kellam-Wyatt Farm stands out.

“The value of their property, on a per-acre basis, is one of North Carolina’s most valuable conservation easements,” he said.

Kellam inherited the property from his grandfather, who bought a tract in 1935 that originally comprised 400 acres stretching to the Neuse River. Back then, the land was far into the Wake County countryside, and Kellam’s grandfather paid about $5,000 for it. The property has never been annexed into the city, but it is surrounded by neighborhoods that have been.

Over time, Kellam’s family members have sold off their shares of the original farm to developers. About a decade ago, hundreds of homes were built along North Rogers Lane as the city’s growth spread east toward Knightdale. In 2003, a Food Lion shopping center went up near the farm’s northern boundary; the back of the grocery store is visible from one of the fields.

But Kellam wasn’t willing to part with the land he played on as a child. He built his home alongside the ponds and has stayed put for decades, turning one of the fields into a small organic farm after he and Wyatt retired from the Environmental Protection Agency. They sell their harvest – 40 crops ranging from mushrooms to raspberries – at the Midtown Farmers Market at North Hills.

Plenty of offers

The couple has had plenty of offers over the years from developers and timber companies. They don’t even bother to open the envelopes. “We just usually throw them into the recycling,” Wyatt said.

The lengthy document detailing the easement calls for the farm to remain in operation to teach organic, sustainable growing practices to future generations of farmers. Partnerships with local universities and the N.C. Museum of Natural Science are possible. Produce from the property could be sold at a roadside stand on Rogers Lane to cover operational expenses.

“The more self-sustaining you can make it, the better,” Wyatt said.

Kellam hopes the city will eventually turn their house into a nature education center. “The land is a magnet for wildlife – from the water birds that visit the lakes throughout the year, to the foxes and raccoons and deer that forage in our woods,” he said.

The city could also tie the property into the Neuse River Greenway trail a few blocks away. And keeping the land undeveloped, Kellam said, will have benefits well beyond the farm fence: The lakes flow into Crabtree Creek and the Neuse River, which need all the watershed protection they can get.

But don’t expect to see the Kellam-Wyatt Farm open to the public anytime soon. The couple is in good health – he’s 66 and she’s 65 – and plans to continue living and farming there as long as long as they’re able.

So for now, the City of Oaks Foundation won’t have an active role in managing the site. But the organization, which was set up in 2011 to receive the donation of the Joslin Gardens near Five Points, hopes the example will encourage other landowners to make similar gifts.

Brice admits that the conservation easements will become a harder sell come January when the tax credit is gone. “That added benefit gets you to a place where you can make that decision more easily,” he said.

Encouraging donations

Chad Jemison, director of the Triangle Land Conservancy, said he wants state legislators to consider new incentives for land conservation.

“We’re looking forward to getting legislators out on the land that’s been protected,” he said. “We’re certainly hopeful that North Carolina will re-implement (the tax credit) or find other tools that will encourage folks to donate their land.”

Jemison stressed that donations will continue in 2014 because many property owners are passionate about protecting their family land. Kellam and Wyatt fall into that category; as federal government retirees, the tax benefits for their donation will be minimal even with the credit in place, Kellam said.

“It’s never really been about the money,” Kellam said, pointing to the natural beauty he’s enjoyed for as long as he can remember. “We feel richer as a result because we know it’s not going to change.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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