RALEIGH, N.C. — Larry Perry and his brother never want to see subdivisions on farmland that has been in their family since before the Civil War.
Last year, they gave up the right to put houses on 50 acres of their farm in exchange for $475,000 from Wake County, N.C., and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Perry tries to persuade other farmers to do something similar. He gives talks in his area and welcomes visitors to his farm.
"People say, I wish we would have done this or that," Larry Perry said. "But it's too late after it's got asphalt on it."
As farming has ebbed following the 2004 tobacco buyout, conservationists hope to catch the wave of aging or retiring farmers looking for other uses for their land. It's a race against developers who are swooping into previously rural areas, such as eastern Wake County.
It is a critical time for money as well, said Maximilian Merrill of the North Carolina Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. A bond referendum that could inject $1 billion into preserving undeveloped land in North Carolina over the next five years is in limbo in the state Legislature.
And the trust fund, which has received only $2.65 million since it was established in 1986, is ready to increase its distribution of grants. In 2005, the legislature gave the trust fund a 19-member advisory board, led by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and for the first time a small full-time staff. The House version of the budget this year contains $8 million for the trust fund, but the Senate's version has no funding.
"We're ready to go," Merrill said, "as long as we get the money."
Vying with deep-pocketed developers is not easy.
"Most farmers I talk to, their mailboxes are full of offers," said Kurt Smith, a Wake County open space program manager.
Wake County has its own open space program, which it has funded by about $41 million in bonds issued in 2000 and 2004. Since 2001, the bond money, often matched by town and federal grants, has helped the county buy about 3,500 acres. But almost all the bond money is gone. Wake County voters will decide a $50 million open space bond issue in a referendum in October.
The need to preserve open space is particularly acute in fast-urbanizing places such as Wake County. An estimated 10,000 acres of farmland and forests are gobbled up each year in Wake County by development, according to Emmett Curl, county revenue department director.
Land conservation — whether through donations, easements or land sales — can be challenging, Smith said. It is a complex process, involving lots of paperwork and multiple parties. With limited funds, the groups often target properties meeting certain criteria, such as proximity to environmentally sensitive streams.
Deals may be worked out by a land trust, then transferred to local governments. Matching federal grants may require lawyers in Washington to approve the project.
"It ends up being a small percentage of people who have the stomach for it," Smith said.
Larry Perry, 61, sees clear rewards. A retired employee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he has always been interested in protecting land. Growing up on the farm and swimming in the critter-filled waters of the Little River inspired him to study wildlife biology at North Carolina State University.
Development has been closing in since the opening of U.S. 64 Bypass. The land the Perrys put aside will help protect water quality for a future Little River reservoir Raleigh plans to build.
Selling the easement allows the Perrys to preserve more farmland. The brothers took the money they got from the deal to buy about 100 acres in Halifax County. Larry Perry wants a refuge for when the neighbors "get too thick."
Conservation is also a way to hold onto his family's legacy. Larry Perry harbors fond memories of his grandfather, who was content on the farm even in his 80s when he showed signs of Alzheimer's disease.
"If he got `lost,' you'd just go to the grassiest point on the farm, and there Da-Da would be, pulling weeds," Larry Perry said. "He would never leave the farm."
In 1973, Perry and his younger brother, Danny, began buying back land from aunts, uncles and cousins to reassemble the farm of their grandparents. For a while, the brothers stopped farming while they pursued other careers. But they began to miss it and got back into farming in 1983.
Larry Perry loves the feeling of self-sufficiency the farm gives him. The Perrys grow soybeans, corn and hay on the 115-acre farm. They also manage timber, board horses and lease land for tobacco. Larry Perry built his home from trees on the farm. He eats the fish he catches, deer he hunts and vegetables he cans himself.
Urban dwellers might find it hard to understand that kind of attachment to the land, said Dale Threatt-Taylor, a board member of the Triangle Land Conservancy.
"In the urban community, we build our houses and think about it appreciating and selling for a profit," Threatt-Taylor said. "Family farms are different. There's a sentiment attached to it ... that's priceless."
Larry Perry doesn't want people tromping through his yard or four-wheelers tearing up the farm. But with tax money going into its preservation, he is willing to share some of the enjoyment of the land with others. A greenway will someday be built on the property beside the Little River, connecting the farm to a nearby 300-acre county park.
Putting the property into conservation may also provide some insulation for a ridge on the farm he holds especially dear. The highest point on the farm, which will overlook the widest point of Raleigh's future reservoir, is the Perry family graveyard. There lie gravestones of his great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. And when he dies, Larry Perry also wants to be laid to rest there.
MAJOR CONSERVATION OPTIONS
Conservation easements — a landowner permanently gives up some rights of development, but restrictions can be flexible depending on how the agreement is written and the needs of the owner. Typically, the landowner, and any subsequent owner, will be barred from subdividing the property and putting houses on it.
Market sale: a landowner sells the property, valued at its highest market use.
Donation: a landowner donates part or all of an easement or property.
Farmers help steward the land. Under an easement, a landowner can continue to farm the land. If a landowner sells or donates his farm outright to conservation groups, the new owners may lease back part or all of the property for farming. Either way, conservationists say having farmers monitoring the land is a good thing. It saves the new owner from having to manage the land, and it keeps people from trespassing or dumping garbage.
Income tax incentives. Congress approved last summer more generous tax breaks for any conservation easement donations. The value of the donation would be the difference between the land's unrestricted value and its new value with limited development. Qualifying farmers can deduct the easement value up to 100 percent of their income over as many as 16 years.
Lower estate taxes. Landowners may have trouble passing land down to their heirs because of the cost of death taxes. A conservation easement can lower the appraised value of land by 30 to 60 percent.
Control. Farmers might feel as though they're giving up control of the land.
Money. Farmers might gain more money if they hold out longer for an offer from a developer. Conservation money is limited, so conservation groups often focus first on large tracts near critical watersheds.
Complexity. Conservation can be a complicated, drawn-out process, involving paperwork, lawyers and multiple agencies.
_North Carolina Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, Triangle Land Conservancy
(c) 2007, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
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