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Wednesday, 07 September 2016 16:28

Homebuilding company wants to sell Plott Balsam tract for conservation

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High in the Plott Balsams, there’s a swath of property riddled with panoramic views, sparking waterfalls and high-elevation solitude that was once destined for development. But more than a decade after purchasing it, America’s Homeplace has yet to build a single structure — and now the homebuilding company is offering the 912 acres at a reduced rate for long-term conservation. 

“It’s a beautiful piece of property, kind of a one-of-a-kind piece,” said Stacy Buchanan, regional president for the company and a Jackson County native. “There’s not many pieces this large left in the Southern Appalachians.”

The land features a 320-degree view that looks out over Sylva, Cherokee and Waterrock Knob. At more than a mile high, it contains the headwaters of Blackrock Creek, Hornbuckle Creek and Shut in Creek — which are all major tributaries of Soco Creek — as well as rare plant and forest communities. 

It’s also situated at a strategically important place for conservation, abutting Sylva’s Pinnacle Park, the Nantahala National Forest, the Qualla Boundary and land that will soon become part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, forming the new Waterrock Knob Park. 

“It’s kind of a piece of the puzzle that would allow all those public lands in the Plott Balsams to really tie in, all the way from Waterrock Knob, all the way to the town of Sylva, all the way to Dicks Creek through the Forest Service, all the way through Cherokee,” Buchanan said. 

A development built there would rival anything else Western North Carolina, Buchanan said, because you can’t construct views like the ones this property offers naturally. And now that the recession is ebbing and the economy picking back up, it might be feasible for development plans to resume once more. But Buchanan said that what the company really wants is to see the land conserved and the views protected. 

Plott Balsams region topoThat’s why they’re willing to cut a deal to sell the land for conservation purposes.

“Once it’s developed, you can’t take it back,” Buchanan said. “You can’t take the viewshed back.”

The challenge, however, is coming up with the money. In a letter sent to both Sylva and Jackson County, America’s Homeplace requested $4.25 million for the property. 

“Even if it’s a bargain sale, it’s still a fair amount of money,” said Bill Holman, North Carolina director for The Conservation Fund, who’s been discussing the property with Buchanan for years. “Public and private money would need to be raised and we’d need to figure out where that money would come from.” 

Town and county leaders seemed receptive to the idea of conserving the land, but they balked at the price tag. 

“The town does not have that kind of money,” said Sylva Town Manager Paige Dowling. “It’s more than our budget, more than is in the Fisher Creek Fund.”

Sylva’s entire 2015-16 budget clocked in at $3.3 million, and its Fisher Creek Fund — money the town got for placing a conservation easement on the Pinnacle Park property, to be used for water quality projects — currently holds $3.2 million, with the town already discussing other projects that would draw on those funds. 

“It is a lot of money,” agreed Jackson County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

Sylva’s town board briefly discussed the offer at its Aug. 25 meeting, with mention of conversations continuing down the road. 

“I definitely want to get some talks going with some of our local conservation groups and see what can be worked out,” Commissioner David Nestler said in a follow-up interview. 

The money is the biggest obstacle, but there’s always the possibility of grant funding to pursue. However, Dowling cautioned that grant awards in $4 million range are few and far between. 

At the Aug. 25 meeting, meanwhile, Duke Energy’s district manager Lisa Leatherman, who was present to comment on a different agenda item, chimed in with a few suggestions of places the town might look for funding. 

“There are resources there,” she said. “I encourage you to look for them.”

Holman remains optimistic that if the desire is there to see the project through, the funding will materialize. 

“If there’s a good project and a lot of support, often the funding will come together to make it happen,” he said. 

That’s a scenario that Holman’s seen borne out quite recently, when The Conservation Fund completed a years-long project to purchase and convey 2,986 acres in the Plott Balsams to the National Park Service, forming Waterrock Knob Park. An additional 2,343 acres has been purchased by a coalition of other conservation groups — The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — and will be added to the new park within the next year. 

Conserving the America’s Homeplace property, which is contiguous to the future Waterrock Knob Park, would only amplify the value of other conservation efforts in the Plott Balsams. 

“I think it’s something that we ought to seriously take a look at one day,” McMahan said. “It connects all those properties that run all the way through Blackrock up to Waterrock Knob.”

The parcels sit neatly among all the other conserved pieces along the Parkway, and unlike the ruggedly steep terrain that characterizes much of the area, the property is rife with gently rolling ridgetops and old logging roads that would make great hiking and biking trails, Buchanan said. There’s already a gravel road through the property that America’s Homeplace built recently. 

With discussion emerging about creating a mountain biking trail system in contiguous Pinnacle Park, the America’s Homeplace property could be integral to maximizing those efforts. 

But orchestrating such projects takes time. The conservation Fund has been working on the Waterrock Knob Park project since 2011, and the final papers were signed less than a month ago. If all the entities involved decide it’s a project worth pursuing, it could be years before America’s Homeplace gets a dime for the property. There are basic questions to be answered first, such as a specific price agreement and consensus as to who the long-term owner of the property might be. 

Buchanan says the company is willing to wait, if waiting will result in the property being conserved. 

“We would really like to see it go this way,” he said. “If it doesn’t, someone would take it and develop the property.” 

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