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County commissioners OK landowners’ pursuit to protect 350 acres from future development

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rowan County commissioners on Monday approved the Soil and Water Conservation District’s request for two local landowners to pursue federal and state grants to conserve 350 acres of farmland with easements that would permanently prevent future development.

Both located in the western portion of Rowan County, one active farm owner is applying to have 200 acres of farmland conserved, and the other is requesting 150 acres be conserved.

Chris Sloop, director of the Rowan County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the location of the two parcels of land cannot be released now in an effort to protect personal identifiable information about the applicants.

Dewitt Hardee, with the North Carolina Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Fund, said once applications for grants are presented in a public meeting and grant dollars are committed, information about the applicants and the location of the land becomes public record. He said those meetings are announced in May, but not all applications make it to public meetings.

Jonathan Lanier, who handles legal affairs for the state conservation easement committee, did not respond to a request for comment from Salisbury Post.

The county currently has 428 acres designated with conservation easements. Adding 350 more will continue to protect the land from being developed, Sloop said, and “ensure lands are set aside for green space for environmental purposes” as well as keeping local people fed.

While the county isn’t required to provide any funding of the grants, the Soil and Water District sought commissioners’ “blessing” to use the county’s federal employer identification number to funnel the state and federal funds through the Rowan County Finance Department and use county attorney Jay Dees to close the easements and support the landowners if the easement is ever challenged in court.

That means Rowan County government would serve as the “pass-through organization,” as Commissioner Mike Caskey called it.

Sloop said it’s rare, but a challenge in court could occur if the land was sold to someone who didn’t, or wished not to, abide by easement guidelines.

The landowners sought assistance from the county Soil and Water Conservation District in late 2019, and have already submitted an application for 25% of the total cost of the easement from the state department, which is the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. The deadline to submit an application for federal funding from the USDA is April 10, and the landowners are requesting 50% of the total cost for the easement from the federal level. Each landowner will cover the additional 25% of funding themselves, respectively.

Sloop said he was unable to disclose the total cost of the grants since the applications have not been approved or denied yet.

During the commissioners meeting on Monday, held digitally because of COVID-19, Commissioner Judy Klusman expressed concern for property rights for future inheritors, questioning whether future generations may want to use the land for other purposes.

Commissioner chairman Greg Edds said it’s often tough to strike a balance between the free market and support for the agricultural industry.

But ultimately commissioners voted to approve the conservation easement pursuits.

“I would find it hard to believe that they would implement some type of constraints on this property if it wasn’t necessary,” said Commissioner Craig Pierce. “So I guess what I’m asking is are we smarter than these guys to say, ‘No, it has to be done a different way?’ Or should we step back and say, ‘This is the program, we either support it or we don’t?'”

Sloop also noted during the commissioner meeting that the applications were strong and likely to be accepted because of their soil makeup. One of the main arguments to be made for preserving farmland is if the soil is considered “prime” use or “of statewide importance soil,” which the majority of the soil for each parcel of farmland is in these applications, he said.

Additionally, protecting farmland from future development ensures the land will keep the same reduced tax rate that farmers utilize.

Typically, such requests are handled via the Three Rivers Land Trust, which is a private, nonprofit organization located in the county. But Sloop said conservation easement requests have had to go through the Soil and Water District and local government because the Three Rivers Land Trust has exhausted the majority of its funds from larger areas being conserved along High Rock Lake and the Yadkin River.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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