published Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Preserving open space

A pending wave of Volkswagen-related residential and commercial growth seems likely to consume a significant amount of the region's remaining farms and rural greenspace, especially in the Hamilton County area north of the city on both sides of the Tennessee River. Time is already short for creating a comprehensive plan to guide that growth, and to preserve significant farmland and historic landscapes, creeks and wetlands, that provide the scenic texture and quality of life that define our region. Indeed, city and county leaders have yet to embark on comprehensive land-use planning to cope with the coming growth.

The lamentable absence of such planning makes this a critical time for conservation-minded property owners in the still-rural areas of the county to consider partnering with The Land Trust for Tennessee. The Land Trust is the state's premier agency for developing conservation easements that provide property owners both beneficial tax incentives and a secure way to ensure that their wishes for preserving their land will be protected in perpetuity.

If city and county leaders would step up to their pledges to provide a comprehensive plan to coordinate growth and prevent random sprawl, they would also find The Land Trust for Tennessee an excellent partner. Part of its mission is to work collaboratively with public agencies and officials to develop open space plans.

The Land Trust is presently working with Nashville's mayor and metro government, for example, to create a model Open Space Plan for Davidson County. Leaders there belatedly realized that growth and sprawl threaten the very quality-of-life attributes which drew so many people and businesses to Nashville in the first place.

Hamilton County's failure to plan for VW-related growth would be terribly ironic. One of the main reasons Volkswagen selected the city as the site for its plant was the aesthetic value of the city and the surrounding scenic landscape. A failure to establish good land-use planning would, in a very real sense, dishonor part of the bargain for the plant, as well as the community's heritage.

The Land Trust for Tennessee has become increasingly adept at its conservation mission since its inception 10 years ago. It has flourished, in part, because conservation easements allow owners to live on their land, and pass it on to their heirs, in return for restricting major development of their land. Statewide, the Land Trust for Tennessee has partnered with property owners to preserve more than 51,000 acres in 47 counties.

Conservation easements involving large properties have included the 3,000-acre Lost Cove forest in Sewanee that links over 17,000 additional acres of wildlife habitat and recreational lands. Another easement protected the nationally renowned Fiery Gizzard trail near Monteagle on the Cumberland Plateau.

Eighteen conservation land trust easements, covering approximately 5,800 acres, have been signed in Hamilton County and eight surrounding counties, mostly in the last three years since the Land Trust's Chattanooga area office was opened. The list of conservation agreements in this region include the 693-acre historic Mayfield Farms property near Athens, which contains more than 7,900 feet of stream frontage, and the century-old Webb farm that takes in 4,150 feet of river-bank along the Hiwassee River in Polk County.

Other area signature properties whose owners have worked with the Land Trust for Tennessee for conservation easements include a 3,282-acre tract on Graysville Mountain that straddles Hamilton and Rhea counties and adjoins the Cumberland Trail State Park, and a 54-acre parcel owned by Ronny Swafford in Bledsoe County that preserves 3,228 feet of frontage along the banks of the Sequatchie River, and about 1,400 feet along a feeder tributary.

Owners of two other century-old farms in Hamilton County, and two whose properties have significant portions of the Trail of Tears routes, have also signed conservation easements with the Land Trust.

Such agreements are valuable for reasons that are central to our society and to our lives as individuals. They preserve open green space. They protect the scenic and aesthetic values that beautify our land, embellish our quality of life and lift our spirits. They pay tribute to our heritage and preserve the same for our children. And they bond to us our core values, reminding us that growth and business is but a part -- and probably not the central part -- of our lives.

Such work, and the conservation easements that comprise it, are enduring and valuable to all. Few other legacies hold that promise.

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