Acre by acre, and million by million, Wake County is sewing together a patchy greenbelt among the farmland and subdivisions east of Raleigh. After 15 years of purchasing and planning, Wake's first nature preserve will open this year to the public.
In all, the county has bought up nearly 5,900 acres around the county, near Zebulon, Wendell and Knightdale. That land's largely meant to serve as a home for wildlife and a natural buffer to keep pollution from waterways.
"There was just such a turnover in land - vacant forest and farmland to development," said Chris Snow, Wake's director of parks, recreation and planning. "There were some people who got concerned and said we should really protect some of this before it goes away."
But there's room for fun among the county's farmland and forest too. For the next few months, construction crews will do the minimal work needed to prepare a few areas for intrepid explorers.
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One of the new projects, called the Robertson's Mill Pond Preserve, runs among the elbows of the bald cypress trees on Buffalo Creek, which are rarely seen so far west. The county has spent more than $7 million since 2014 to buy about 500 acres of land along the waterway, stretching more than two miles north from Robertson's Pond.
Construction's kicking into gear now for a gravel parking lot and a canoe launch - but that's not really the point of the place.
"The voters approved these bonds, so we want them to have access," Snow said. "At the same time, we don't want to clear cut and have big structures."
The county also is working to open Procter Farm Preserve, including 563 acres of farm and forest, and the 265-acre Turnipseed Nature Preserve this year.
While the products are all natural, the county's process for buying this land is quite complicated.
The county created its purchasing program in 2000, when voters allowed the government to take on debt for open space. Since then, Wake has cashed in $91 million in bonds through three referendums for the program. That's a lot of money to spend, so county staffers developed a formula to guide them.
The government has thrice invited landowners to pitch their property for county purchase. With each round, the county ran a computer model to rank the lots.
"It talks about the parcel's size, it talks about where it's located," Snow said. "Are there other open space properties around? Is it on somebody's greenway plan? It's a fairly in-depth model."
Soon, though, the program will come to this chapter's end. The last purchases, authorized last month and in December, will reduce the fund to its last $7 million.
Commissioner Sig Hutchinson wants some of that money put toward connecting existing land and toward joint projects with towns and cities. Eventually, though, the program might need another referendum to continue - and between schools and transit, that might take a while.