Not everyone eying idle York County land wants to build on it. At least not that way.

It isn’t hard finding someone willing to build on York County land. But to do it without construction?

It takes someone looking to build community and leave it for generations to come.

“We usually do maybe one or two of these a year,” said Nation Ford Land Trust executive director Steve Hamilton. “To have them both come together in one week, that was really something.”

The land trust recently acquired two properties. Together they protect more than 650 acres in York County.

Debbie Stuck donated 350 acres southwest of York. She and her husband, Bob, now have easements on 1,150 acres helping to form a greenbelt around York.

David Anderson donated 314 acres south of Rock Hill. The property, in the Anderson family for generations, adds to the land trust’s Blackjacks/Brattonsville Focus Area.

“We continue to work to help York County landowners preserve their family lands,” said Bernie Ackerman, chairman of the land trust board of directors. “We appreciate the Stuck and Anderson families for their contributions to our way of life.”

Not alone on the land

Nation Ford isn’t the only land trust. Katawba Valley Land Trust in Lancaster operates in Chester, Lancaster, Kershaw and Fairfield counties. The Nature Conservancy operates statewide, out of its Charleston office. More than a dozen land trusts operate nationally.

Nation Ford and Katawba Valley trace roots to the 1980s. The Catawba River Task Force published a Catawba River Corridor Plan recommending buffers on the river and tributaries. Murray White in Fort Mill and Lindsay Pettus in Lancaster co-chaired a committee with that group.

White co-founded Nation Ford Land Trust in 1989. Pettus began Katawba Valley in 1992. The sister organizations combine for more than 20,000 acres of protected property since.

Current Katawba Valley director Dick Christie said the organizers came together at a time when it seemed growth pressure was on the rise along the Catawba River. It may have been hard to imagine then what the area sees now. Fort Mill, Indian Land, Lake Wylie, Tega Cay and Rock Hill show explosive population and business development growth. Many estimates put these areas at the top of state, regional and even national growth listings.

“I don’t think it’s gotten harder,” said Christie, noting development demand surges also can lead to people wanting to balance it out some. “We have a lot of people coming to us who are interested in seeing the long-term protection of the land.”

Growth pressure

Developers build. Land trusts conserve. It would seem those sides conflict, but it isn’t always so.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Christie said. “They can go hand in hand.”

One reason is land trusts aren’t trying to set aside every property.

“We’re not interested in protecting land that has the highest use of development,” Christie said. “We’re looking at land that may have significant natural resources, historic or cultural uses.”

Examples may be floodplains, historic homes or old mill sites. Eying sometimes undevelopable land brings trusts in partnership with builders, which is why Katawba Valley owns a strip of mitigation property near the Indian Land Walmart not far from Six Mile Creek in the Carolina Heelsplitter Overlay District. It’s how Nation Ford got a 43-acre strip of buffer property between the Bailiwyck subdivision and I-77 near Fort Mill.

“More often than not they have pieces of property say along creeks, streams, things they want to protect,” Hamilton said. “And they’ll ask us to put those in conservation easements.”

Occasionally there may be sights attractive both to developers and conservation groups. Often, though, the parties co-exist well.

“We want to partner with them more than anything else,” Hamilton said.

Conserving wetlands and creeks, reducing pavement along them to protect against flooding, can have benefits both for area development and the greater community, Christie said.

“We don’t consider ourselves anti-development at all,” he said. “We just feel like there better uses for some properties.”

Conservation groups believe both sides need one another.

“We have such strong growth that we need equally strong conservation,” Ackerman said. “We are going to build on our beginnings to foster a new era of land conservation in our community.”

How it works

Land trusts typically don’t buy property. They do inform landowners of significant tax breaks to put sites under easement. Grants and other funding sources can pay up to market value for property.

“We are a facilitator,” Hamilton said. “We get the interested parties together and make these things happen.”

York County has a publicly funded conservation arm, York County Forever. Since 1998 the group is responsible, most often with Nation Ford Land Trust, for protecting about 10,000 acres. Some sites are in towns or cities. Most are in rural areas.

A former Tega Cay mayor, Hamilton said high-growth areas like Fort Mill and Tega Cay don’t see the same opportunities for conserving land compared to western York County.

“Land is so dear that it’s difficult to get anything under conservation easements in that area,” Hamilton said.

The same is true for Christie, who says it isn’t the same in high-volume Indian Land compared to other areas where his group works. Yet there are exceptions like the Indian Land Walmart site and the Bailiwyck property near Fort Mill. The Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill is under easement and is a major draw for the town.

“It’s played a major role in protecting the Fort Mill Township area,” Hamilton said.

Putting an easement on a property isn’t the same process for all, but generally it means reducing what can be built on a site in favor of a more natural setting.

“There are different rules for different properties,” Christie said. “Almost every easement is unique. The overall goal is to protect the environmental features of that site.”

Landowners often retain ownership. Some still can farm the land or timber it. Some can carve out small pieces to build a home or bestow to heirs.

“They’re pretty tight with what’s allowed to be done,” Hamilton said.

Land can be used publicly or privately. Sites can change ownership with the death of the property owner. What can’t happen are the typical development uses common in many parts of the I-77 corridor.

“There’s no shopping centers,” Hamilton said. “There’s no gas stations.”

‘In their hearts’

Some well-known sites in the area are under easement. From Confederate Park in Fort Mill to the McCelvey Center in York, the massive greenway in Fort Mill to Brattonsville, sites vary. They include property at Landsford Canal State Park and Great Falls in Chester, and more than 2,500 acres at the Forty-Acre Rock site in Lancaster County.

York County Forever alone assisted with Historic Brattonsville, the more than 600-acre Kirsh Wildlife Management Area, the 92-acre monadnock Nanny’s Mountain, the White Home and more than 1,600 acres on the Broad River, at Worth Mountain.

Some projects date back decades. Others, like the Founders Trail starting in the Masons Bend subdivision and connecting Fort Mill and Rock Hill along the Catawba River, are just months new.

Land trust leaders say opportunities and projects vary a good bit. The only constant, aside from their interest in preserving open space, is the reason most often given from landowners in the weeks and months it takes land trusts to work through an agreement.

“It’s in their hearts that they want to conserve land for future generations,” Hamilton said. “That’s the most common. Their heart is in it.”

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