In the early 2000s, national nonprofit Scenic America deemed thousands of acres of forests and farmland between the Neuse River and Marks Creek in eastern Wake County to be a “Last Chance Landscape” – a setting treasured for its natural beauty or distinctive character that faces the threat of development.
That distinction along with the area’s cultural heritage, prompted the Triangle Land Conservancy, Wake and Johnston counties, the state and other local partners to work to preserve the Marks Creek watershed about 10 miles southeast of Raleigh to retain the area’s rural character.
“We were growing so fast through the ’90s, and there were a lot of people that were alarmed by the amount of land going from a natural state to a developed state,” said Chris Snow, Wake’s director of parks, recreation and open space.
Since then, these groups have invested nearly $25 million, including $19 million from Wake, to protect about 2,184 acres of open space surrounding the Wake-Johnston county line.
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Two decades of preservation work has put the public-private partnership closer to fulfilling a vision of permanently protecting 7,500 acres of undeveloped land through easements and public ownership. A natural park of that size would surpass that of the 5,500-acre William B. Umstead State Park.
“It’s a jewel,” said Wake County Commissioner Chairman Sig Hutchinson, who led the county’s open space and parks advisory committee when preservation began. “When I was talking to the commissioners in the mid-2000s, we talked about our box of jewels within our open space program ... and we considered the Marks Creek area to be our Hope Diamond.”
‘Umstead of the east’
The Marks Creek area has a 270-year-old farming history that is evident in the homes, barns, fields, pastures, country stores, forests and small churches that still line its roads.
TLC, through its Marks Creek Rural Land Initiative, and its partners hope to preserve that heritage by protecting the land and one day connecting major hubs of open space with trails and greenways.
“This area has been referred to as the Umstead of the east,” said Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, TLC’s associate director of conservation and stewardship. “In 45 minutes, you could (one day) bike here from downtown Raleigh, hop off the greenway, go mountain biking, get some local produce, maybe, and have a great adventure, just within minutes of downtown.”
The Neuse River Greenway, which links Wake and Johnston counties, runs through a 329-acre property called Riverwalk. Adjoining Riverwalk is one of TLC’s most recent projects, the 405-acre Walnut Hill Nature Preserve. The southernmost portion will open to the public in 2018 with about 12 miles of hiking trails.
Betty Brandt Williamson, who owned the Walnut Hill land with her sister Sally Greaser before it was sold to TLC in 2012, remembered her father keeping black Angus cows and and growing tobacco, wheat, oats and barley on the farm when she was young.
“It was just a different way of life,” Williamson said. “But what an honorable way of life to work the land and respect the land.”
Even after Williamson and her family moved into town, they would still visit the land, which had been in their family for more than 250 years.
“When (my dad) would have a bad day, he would go down there, and he said he felt closer to God at the farm than he did at a church,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words, but it just is medicine for the soul.”
And in some ways, it hasn’t changed, Williamson said.
“You just sort of feel close to your ancestors,” she said. “You can go down there and you can almost feel your blood pressure drop. You go down there and you can hear the wind going through the trees.”
Hammerbacher referred to Walnut Hill as the “cornerstone” tract to the initiative because it will help connect the Neuse River Greenway to Wake’s open space, including the Turnipseed Nature Preserve and Lake Myra, both southwest of Wendell near the Johnston County line.
Wake expects to open its 265-acre Turnipseed Nature Preserve to the public this summer. It will offer 2 to 3 miles of hiking trails and boardwalks that run through the natural wetland.
Funding for the Turnipseed project came from county’s Open Space Program, which kicked off in 2000. That year, 78 percent of voters authorized a $15 million open space bond. They approved a second bond for $26 million in 2004 and a $50 million bond in 2007.
The main objective was to protect 30 percent of the county’s land area – about 165,000 acres – as permanent open space. The county has preserved nearly 10,000 acres through the program, putting it over a third of the way to that goal.
While the entire portfolio of protected land in the Marks Creek watershed is expansive – and growing – it will differ from Umstead State Park because not all of it will be accessible to the public. Several working farms will still exist, but some of the more forested areas with future trails will be open to the public.
“I think we’d love to see another 1,000-plus acres protected out here, but that 7,500 acres is still attainable if we have the resources to do it,” Hammerbacher said.
Finding the funds
But acquiring the necessary properties could take 20 years to accomplish, particularly because neither the state nor the counties take property by eminent domain.
The longer it takes TLC and its partners to purchase the land, or in some cases just the land’s development rights, the more difficult it becomes, especially when it comes to funding.
“Conservation funding has remained sort of the same or gone down during the past 20 years that this has been on the radar, and land prices have gone up substantially,” said Sandy Sweitzer, TLC’s executive director.
This means the project could take even longer to complete.
“Also it might not be here to protect,” Sweitzer said.
Wake also will soon be looking for more cash.
Hutchinson said the county just spent the last money from the $50 million bond issued in 2007, but he hopes another bond referendum will go before voters in a year or two.
With plans for an extension of Interstate 540 from Holly Springs to Knightdale to move forward in the next couple years, time is of the essence. Hammerbacher said she believes the highway could result in another spike in growth.
“The sooner the better with the growth in Wake County,” she said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon