Midtown Raleigh News

Wake County’s open-space program sets aside land for reflection, environment

Wake County’s director of parks, recreation and open space is preparing for that milestone 1 millionth resident – expected to arrive in the capital county in 2015 – by making sure that person has a place to get away from the 999,999 others.

Maybe it will be in a kayak on Robertson’s Mill Pond. Or on a hiking trail in the Turnipseed Preserve. Or riding a horse through what used to be Procter’s farm. These three properties, all in eastern Wake County, are on track to open for limited public access by this fall as part of the county’s open space program.

“Every now and then you need to slow down and calm down,” parks director Chris Snow said. “What better place to do that than in nature?”

Wake County was the first in the state to develop a comprehensive open space program, in partnership with local municipalities, state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations such as the Triangle Land Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land. The goal of the program is to permanently protect 30 percent of the county’s land area – about 165,000 acres – from development, creating a series of interconnected oases.

The work began in earnest in 2000 when voters approved $15 million in open-space bonds, followed by $26 million in bonds in 2004 and $50 million more in 2007. While the goal of the program is to protect the county’s water quality, the preservation of green space is considered an amenity that attracts homeowners and business, reduces pollution, helps prevent flooding, supports plant and animal diversity and provides opportunities for recreation.

So far, the program has set aside more than 4,700 acres across the county.

Recently, the county Board of Commissioners authorized Snow’s department to pay consultants $50,000 to produce schematic designs and detailed cost estimates for opening Robertson’s Mill Pond, Turnipseed and Procter on weekends and some holidays. Each site would be dedicated to a single use. Snow said he expects to have the consultants’ reports this summer.

Development at each site will be minimal, he said; each would need parking and restrooms and maybe some picnic space. Procter and Turnipseed would need some trail work, and Robertson’s Mill Pond would need a boat ramp. The work needed to open all three parks is expected to cost about $2.2 million.

Offering residents a quiet place

The three sites, while not contiguous, are within a few miles of each other off U.S. 64 in eastern Wake County. The area has wide, green stretches of farmland but no large public parks or accessible open spaces big enough for visitors to lose sight of nearby shopping centers or subdivisions. Residents of the towns of Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon and the rural areas outside them often drive across the county to Blue Jay County Park or use Umstead State Park if they want to go for a quiet walk in the woods.

By the time the leaves turn this fall, they might be able to hike instead through the Turnipseed Preserve, an assemblage of six tracts of land in the Marks Creek watershed totaling 265 acres. The county began buying the land in 2004; it owns five of the pieces and has a conservation easement on the sixth.

The land includes large boulders and flat granite outcroppings that host unusual plants for this area. It’s home to a large beaver impoundment, and several wildlife species important to the state, including Cooper’s hawk, yellow-billed cuckoo and the Eastern hognose snake.

A short drive away is Robertson’s Mill Pond, believed to have been formed in the 1800s when William Avera moved from Johnston County and dammed a section of Buffalo Creek so he could power a grist mill.

20 minutes from town, a refuge

A county history says the property changed hands a couple of times before Charlie Robertson bought it around 1914, and it stayed in the family until Robertson’s great-grandson Ed Gehrke sold it to the county open space program last year.

Though its footings remain, the mill building was torn down sometime in the 1970s, but the dam is still in place, holding in a 61-acre blackwater pond that’s prime duck habitat and is home to the only big stand of bald cypress trees in Wake County.

Just 20 minutes from downtown Raleigh, it looks like a piece of the Great Dismal Swamp.

“I wanted it to be maintained the way it is,” Gehrke said, explaining why he sold it. “And I knew the county could do that. I didn’t want somebody coming in and cutting down the cypress trees for the timber.

“I had the benefit of it growing up. I’ve been going in there for as long as I can remember. There’s a lot of nature in there that I’m sure kids will enjoy and should learn about.”

Just off Lizard Lick Road near the intersection with old Bunch Road, the Procter farm is the largest parcel Wake County has bought for its open space program. It’s 563 acres of fields and woods that lie near land Wake County bought for a City of Raleigh reservoir on the Little River that has not yet been built.

With a little work to fill in some washouts, its tractor paths would be popular with equestrians, some of whom Snow says now ride illegally on public and private lands because they don’t have enough places where they’re allowed.

Fighting “nature deficit disorder”

Kent Whitehead is acting director for the Carolinas office of the Trust for Public Land, which has helped Wake County acquire open space land. Whitehead says it’s important to preserve places like these, which provide a different experience from an outdoor playground or a neighborhood park.

“I personally think it’s great to be able to get out to a spot where you look around all you can see is nature,” Whitehead said. “And the bigger the parcel, the more different types of habitat, and the more different kinds of experiences you can have.”

Researchers have studied for years the effects of exposure to nature on childhood development. Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” to describe problems he says can be solved by taking kids outdoors.

Snow says it’s a simple concept. Sitting on the grass near a former tenement home on the Procter farm, listening to birds singing and an April breeze lifting the new leaves on a stand of trees, he took a deep breath.

“I think it does people good just to get away.”