Smithfield Herald

Group preserving Johnston-Wake farm

Betty Brandt Williamson, on of the heirs of the Walnut Hill Farm property, walks through one of the fields on the  409-acre tract.
Betty Brandt Williamson, on of the heirs of the Walnut Hill Farm property, walks through one of the fields on the 409-acre tract.

Late last month, the Triangle Land Conservancy announced the purchase of the bulk of the 479-acre Walnut Hill farm, which straddles the Wake-Johnston line north of Clayton.

Wake County Commissioners agreed to contribute $1.6 million toward the purchase of the 409 acres that lie in Wake County.

Next up for the land conservancy is the purchase of 70.3 acres in Johnston County, a deal it hopes to complete by month’s end.

To accomplish that, the land conservancy will use $158,000 from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, an $80,000 Ecosystem Enhancement Grant from the state and $225,000 in land conservancy money. Also, the TLC has asked Johnston County Commissioners for $231,000.

That request came in a letter dated Aug. 20, the same day the land conservancy announced it was buying the Wake County acreage.

“We would have liked more communication in advance,” said Jeff Carver, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. “We didn’t know about it when we prepared our budget.”

Still, Carver seemed open to helping the TLC buy the Johnston acreage. “We need to do our homework on it first before we spend taxpayer money on something, but it is important to us to preserve that land,” he said.

Chad Jemison of the TLC confirmed that the land conservancy did not give Johnston County leaders advance notice of the Wake County deal. He said the land conservancy wanted to seal that deal before approaching Johnston leaders.

Jemison said the TLC first approached Johnston about Walnut Hill Farm three of five years ago. Those discussions bore no immediate fruit.

Though much smaller than the Wake County tract, the Johnston County land is valuable because it is home to many species of wildlife and plants, Jemison said. Seven species of butterfly inhabit the land, which is also home to the uncommon umbrella magnolia, Japanese stiltgrass and a few Southern crabapple trees.

“It’s some of the most significant land for wildlife,” Jemison said.

The Johnston track also has several creeks, and its topography is more varied, Jemison said. “There’s beautiful streams and wonderful large boulders, unusual for that part of Johnston County,” he said.

The TLC envisions the Johnston land becoming host to trails for biking and hiking.

The Johnston portion is next to 330 acres of preserved green space surrounding the Neuse River Trail, a popular greenway that connects Clayton to Raleigh and serves as a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Together, the Wake and Johnston lands will connect a patchwork of other conservation lands that will create a 1,600-acre destination for hikers, bikers and kids with fishing poles.

“This is the crown jewel,” former Raleigh Mayor Tom Bradshaw, a land conservancy board member, told Wake commissioners.

The Williamson family, which owned Walnut Hill, sold the land to the conservancy for less than 40 percent of its appraised value. That’s because the late Bailey Peyton Williamson, who raised black Angus cows on it, felt closer to God on this piece of dirt than he did in any church, and he wanted others to experience that, said his daughter.

“Our parents loved the land, and they passed that sentiment down to the next generation,” said Betty Brandt Williamson. “This is about protecting the land forever and providing open space for public use, as well as protection for our farms, rivers and streams.

The next step is for the conservancy to begin the construction of trails the public can use to explore the rolling pastureland, the damp deciduous forest, the rocky streams and quiet ponds. The group also will consider demonstration farms or community gardens that provide food and give people a way to learn about farming by putting their hands in the soil.

Until the public begins to use the land, family friend Steve Temple will still be allowed to hunt deer on it as he has done for more than 20 years. He said he hopes the public gets some of the same benefits from Walnut Hill that he has enjoyed.

“It’s kind of like what an antidepressant does for some people,” said Temple, who lives nearby and has helped take care of the property since Bailey Williamson died. “You can come out here on a tractor and cut these fields, and let your thoughts go away for awhile.

“Good therapy.”