Little White Oak Mountain

Little White Oak Mountain: A Collaborative Conservation Venture

The scenic ridgeline and south facing slopes of Little White Oak Mountain, slated as the site for an 687-unit residential development north of the Town of Columbus known as the Foster Creek Preserve in the mid-2000s, will now be permanently protected thanks to the cooperative action of local organizations. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), working closely with the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC), purchased the 1,068-acre property in December 2016 to conserve its dramatic views, rare species, wildlife habitats, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

A major gift from Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury, NC and a $1.86 million loan from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina enabled Hendersonville-based CMLC to close on the purchase with the sellers, American Land Fund of Philadelphia. The conservation organizations are now pursuing a strategy to fundraise and convey sections of the property to collaborating agencies in order to be made whole on the purchase.

Over coming years CMLC and PAC hope to transfer portions of the property to the capable management of state and local partner organizations including the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, the Polk County Recreation Department, and the Housing Assistance Corporation, a nonprofit Hendersonville-based developer of affordable housing.

The Tryon-based Pacolet Area Conservancy has targeted the tract as a conservation priority for over a decade and at one point worked with the previous owner on a plan to protect the high-elevation part of the property with a conservation easement. Although the easement never came to fruition, PAC maintained periodic contact with the owners and, working with CMLC, approached the American Land Fund (ALF) once again in 2015. The dialogue initiated then led ultimately to the offer by ALF to sell for a price below market value if the transaction could be completed by the end of 2016.

“PAC is excited to be working with CMLC to create an outcome on the Little White Oak tract that conserves its outstanding natural features while also addressing other community needs,” said PAC President Rebecca Kemp. 

The Polk County Recreation Complex could expand by 300 acres to provide local residents and visitors with greater recreational opportunities. The recreation complex currently provides access to recreational sports fields and walking paths, and the expansion would facilitate more extensive hiking and mountain biking trails.

Thirty to sixty acres adjoining Highway 108 could be developed as a residential workforce housing development intended to help younger families and middle-income workers, such as police officers and teachers, get a start with home ownership. The homeowners help build the homes themselves, which keeps the cost of the homes more affordable. Each home is anticipated to have a value between $180,000-$200,000, which will result in increased property tax revenue for the Town and County.

Plans call for the majority of the tract – up to 600 acres -- to be added to the adjoining Green River Game Lands. The 14,000-acre game land located in and around the Green River Gorge in southeast Henderson and western Polk counties is managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and is primarily used by anglers, hunters and hikers. Though the game land has expanded many times since its creation in 1950, this addition will be the first since 2008 and will provide a point of public access from Houston Road.

The conservation partners hope to initiate a master planning process involving public input to determine how the long-term uses of the property can best benefit the community. For instance, Polk County Middle School adjoins the County Recreation Complex and the Little White Oak property. Planners will look for opportunities to create trails that might link the school to conserved land, and provide teachers and students with educational and recreational access.

According to CMLC executive director Kieran Roe, “Due to the substantial change in the local real estate market that occurred after the 2008-09 recession, the extensive residential development once envisioned for the site will never come to pass. CMLC looks forward to working with PAC and numerous other collaborators on a different, and perhaps better, long-term outcome there for the community.”

These projects provide vital protection of natural areas, federally-endangered species, clean water, and stunning mountain views in Polk County. The projects also expand recreational access to the outdoors, making the work of CMLC and PAC relevant to the wider public. The expanded recreational opportunities may draw more tourists to the area, strengthening the local economy.

When the plans to develop Foster Creek Preserve were originally proposed in 2006, community members made it clear they cared deeply about the property. CMLC and PAC are excited to be part of this important project. 

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