Saving Parkway Land
Boundaries between parkway and private land are defined and also porous.
The National Park Service is working closely with regional land trusts to preserve land and views bordering the Blue Ridge Parkway's 469 miles.
A two-story white clapboard farmhouse and its attendant outbuildings stand a couple hundred feet off the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Doughton Park, at milepost 240 near the North Carolina/Virginia state line. Seeing "my favorite parkway farmhouse" is something I always look forward to, but it never occurred to me that I could learn the story of that house and the people who had called it home. Yet last fall, that's exactly what I did.
I'd arranged an interview with Ellen Woodruff Smith, an octogenarian waitress at the "sandwich shop" at Doughton Park. She has been interviewed many times because she began waitressing there the day the restaurant opened in 1949. But she also grew up in my favorite farmhouse, I discovered. It was built by her maternal grandparents, John J. and Ellen Miller in 1906; in the mid-1930s, her parents, Wilmer and Flossie Woodruff, and Flossie's spinster sister Cora Miller, bought it from the son (Flossie and Cora's brother) who had lived with and cared for the Millers until their deaths. The Woodruffs and their four children moved into the house in 1935, when Ellen was six and her "baby brother" John was four. When their father died of complications from appendicitis in 1947, Ellen and John were in high school.
The Blue Ridge Parkway split the farm in two; eventually the farm passed into the Woodruff children's hands. Ellen and her husband Paul Smith still live on their part of the farm, across the parkway and up a winding driveway from the farmhouse. John, who died in April 2009, was a well-known Alleghany County educator and civic leader who served his community as a teacher, principal and eventually superintendent of the county school system. John farmed on the side; he and Ellen's husband were in the cattle business together. Because he wanted his share of the farm to be preserved, some years before his death he sold it to the parkway.
Blue Ridge Parkway realty specialist Sheila Gasperson, a 30-year employee who began as a part-time clerk in former Superintendent Gary Everhardt's office, remembers that the Woodruff farm "was one of the first tracts I was involved with protecting" after she transferred to the parkway's planning division in 1995. According to the terms of the sale, John Woodruff retained a "life estate": rights to use of the farmhouse, outbuildings and acreage as pasture and hayfields for his lifetime. Upon his death, all reserved rights were terminated.
During the years the parkway was under construction, land for its right-of-way was sometimes acquired through condemnation. That's no longer the case. "All parkway land purchases today involve willing sellers," Gasperson says. Since 1995, the parkway has acquired 107 tracts of additional property totaling 5,125 acres (1,086.85 of those acres were transferred to the parkway by the U.S. Forest Service). It protects land (through purchase or easement) along its corridor for specific reasons: to eliminate or control hazardous access from private or public roads; to simplify its boundaries; to protect stream headwaters; and to preserve parkway scenery, natural or cultural resources. In the case of the Woodruff farm, scenery and access were both issues since the farm is visible from the parkway and there's a connecting road to it. (The farm is now part of 81,785 acres that the parkway owns outright; it also holds scenic or conservation easements on an additional 2,776 acres.)
The parkway is limited to buying – or securing easements on – land with which it shares a border. That's a problem for a park that's nearly 500 miles long but only an average of 800 feet wide (in some places it's as narrow as 200 feet). Since it passes through national forest for only a third of its length, and because it offers expansive views from overlooks and the roadway itself, what travelers are looking at most of the time is private property, much of it multiple landowners distant from the parkway boundary. In the 75 years since construction began, land use along the parkway corridor has changed dramatically. In place of pastoral scenery, today's travelers look down from overlooks at golf courses, second-home developments, gravel pits and industrial buildings. They motor past fields sprouting tract houses instead of pumpkins, cabbage and corn. They gaze toward ridges steepled with cell towers, often through a pall of polluted air.
Does this matter? It does – and to more than parkway officials and preservationists. Economic impact surveys have determined that communities along its corridor benefit from the parkway's millions of annual visitors, to the tune of $2.3 billion in expenditures each year. And surveys of parkway visitors indicate that 95 percent of them come for scenery and recreation. Concerned about what's cropping up in parkway viewsheds, the parkway and partnering organizations are stepping up efforts to protect them. Since partners can draw on non-federal money and can protect vital tracts in viewsheds, they play a crucial role.
Two of the parkway's most active partners are land trusts: the Roanoke-based Western Virginia Land Trust (WVLT) and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC). In the last 15 years, the two organizations have protected tens of thousands of acres along the parkway corridor, some through land purchase, most by conservation easement.
Virginia's "wonderful tax incentives for conservation easements" have helped WVLT secure easements protecting parkway views in seven Virginia counties through which the parkway runs, says Executive Director Roger Holnback. Easements also account for 26,000 of the 30,000-plus acres that CTNC has protected along the parkway corridor in North Carolina. Its three largest easements are on the Asheville and Waynesville watersheds, and on 1,500 crucial acres owned by CSX Railroad below the Orchard at Altapass that it secured last fall.
"CSX didn't want to sell the land but if it had developed it – cut it up into house lots – it would have impacted the view from the parkway, and parkway overlooks, for miles," says CTNC executive director Reid Wilson.
About once a week, Gasperson receives a phone call from a landowner. "Whenever that phone rings, I'm open to explore whatever land protection possibility might work for both the parkway and the landowner," she says. The people who call "like the parkway and want to explore their options for land protection. My goal is to keep them talking. I try to get a feel for where they are with regard to future use or ownership of their land. Some need to sell; some need money to pay taxes but don't want to sell, in which case a conservation easement might work for them – or a life estate, if they're 60 years old or older."
Once she's ascertained the location of the land, she consults parkway Land Status Maps, a set of 64 maps that stretch from milepost 0-469 and show every tract the parkway has acquired, protected by easement, exchanged or conveyed. The maps encapsulate "a history of Blue Ridge Parkway land ownership" and show "all the adjoining lands listed in our Land Protection Plan that are eligible for protection," she says.
If the tract is listed, she collects additional information, then talks with parkway Chief Planner Gary Johnson and Superintendent Phil Francis. If they give the project the go-ahead – tracts listed in the protection plan are prioritized – a National Environmental Protection Act compliance review is conducted and the land protection process proceeds.
"When the federal government buys land, it has to be appraised. Our offer is based on the fair market appraised value," Gasperson says. A "simple, straightforward acquisition" can be completed in approximately six to eight months – if funding is available. "It all boils down to that."
If the caller's land is not contiguous with the parkway, or there is no federal money available, Gasperson can put the owner in touch with a land trust. "In the past, we've been very fortunate to have a number of nonprofits who could step in and protect land for us," she says. That's been harder since the economy soured. Last year for instance, North Carolina's governor stripped the entire $100 million the legislature allocated to the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund to balance the state budget. This year's allocation is $50 million, "and we're hoping to get another $50 million for the fund in next year's budget, but it's not assured," Wilson says. About half the allocation goes to projects across the state to maintain water quality; it's CTNC's most important source of money for parkway land protection. Two smaller state trust funds it uses have also shrunk dramatically, he says.
Funding help may be on the way. Blue Ridge Parkway 75, a nonprofit organization established to plan and implement the parkway's 75th Anniversary Celebration, is seeking passage of a Blue Ridge Parkway Protection Act. If passed, the act would authorize expenditure of $75 million over five years to protect up to 50,000 acres of additional critical land along the parkway corridor through purchase or easement. The bill has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House; all four senators representing Virginia and North Carolina and six House members from the two states are co-sponsors. Wilson, a member of the BRP 75 board, has gone to Washington twice to testify on the act's behalf before House and Senate subcommittees.
The bill only authorizes but does not allocate funding, and is a long way from passage, Wilson cautions. (To be funded, it would need to make its way into the president's budget.) Still, its possibilities excite Gasperson.
"I have landowners sitting on land, just waiting for money to become available," she says. "Fifty million dollars would make a huge difference to land protection along the Blue Ridge Parkway."
What's a Conservation Easement?
A conservation easement is a voluntary, deeded agreement entered into by a landowner that permanently protects land from subdivision and commercial development. The IRS considers conservation easements donations or charitable gifts (hence the tax advantages that accrue from them). Organizations that accept easements monitor the property on a regular basis, but an easement does not make the land "public." Land under conservation easement remains in the landowner's hands. Traditional rural uses like hunting, fishing, farming and forestry are compatible with conservation easements.
(The material above is adapted from "Saving Land in Western Virginia," a spring 2010 publication by the Western Virginia Land Trust; the booklet spells out in laymen's terms what conservation easements are, steps involved in donating conservation easements, answers frequently asked questions and profiles several Virginia families who are protecting their land through conservation easements. Tax advantages differ from state to state, but even if you don't live in Virginia, this publication offers a good general introduction to the subject of conservation easements. Copies can be downloaded and printed out. Go to: westernvirginialandtrust.org/landowners.htm.) —EH
Find out more about land trusts and different approaches to protecting land.
Want to Know More?
Own land along the Blue Ridge Parkway and want to protect it? Here's how to get in touch with people or organizations mentioned in this article:
• Sheila Gasperson, realty specialist, Blue Ridge Parkway, 1-828-271-4779, ext. 218, or email: Sheila_gasperson@nps.gov.
• Western Virginia Land Trust, tel. 540-945-0000; westernvirginialandtrust.org
• Conservation Trust for North Carolina, tel. 919-828-4199; ctnc.org