"It is the intent of the town, with assistance from Haywood County and with some other partners you'll hear about over time, to turn this into a major outdoor recreation venue concentrating on mountain biking, hiking and walking," Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said during a town meeting March 12. "There's a lot of things it could be. We will take this slow. We'll have a lot of public input. I want to hear your thoughts."
“It’s great news,” said Hanni Muerdter, conservation director for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “We’re really thankful for all the funding that’s happening around this project.”
The plan is for the SAHC to buy the property and then transfer it to the town. The project’s biggest source of funding so far is a $1.2 million grant the Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded last year, and the Pigeon River Fund of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina has contributed $25,000. Private donors have also stepped up to the plate, and The Conservation Fund is offering a bridge loan to help SAHC close on the property even as it continues to raise the final segment of funding. Still, the land trust needs about $350,000 before it can complete the purchase.
Located right off of U.S. 19/23 and Interstate 40, the property is easily accessible from these major roadways and just 1 mile from Canton’s town limits. Referred to as the Chestnut Mountain property, it contains 9 miles of stream and, as one of the last large-acreage properties on the Haywood-Buncombe County line, has been identified as an important corridor for wildlife movement.
Canton plans to use the property for outdoor recreation, but with conservation easements in place to ensure that the property’s ecological values remain intact. The plan is for Haywood County to collaborate on management of the property.
“As a land trust there’s this national movement to not just to preserve the most protected places but to find places that can both work for more community engagement and recreation as well as conservation,” said Muerdter. “So we talked with the town and the county to just ask this question — would some sort of public recreation be feasible on this tract?”
Luckily, both the town and county were enthusiastic about the possibility.
“This gift will allow us the potential to seek additional leverage grants and funding sources to create an easily accessible park for Canton, Haywood County, and all of Western North Carolina,” says Smathers. “This property, located just beyond Canton’s city-limits on the well-traveled Highway 19/23 and Interstate 40, will create a new gateway to outdoor recreation, economic development, and continued conservation of our natural landscape.”
"Haywood County is very excited about the potential for public recreation opportunities on this property to give families and visitors a new outdoor experience in Haywood,” added David Francis, Haywood County Recreation and Economic Division program administrator. “We are grateful to SAHC for their hard work and commitment in this project.”
As of now, SAHC hopes to close on the property this spring and transfer it to Canton within a year. SAHC in partnership with the Clean Water Management Trust Fund will continue to monitor the property’s conservation easements after the transfer.