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How One Neighborhood Comes Together Over the Natural World
From its onset in the 1950s, the small Transylvania County community of Sherwood Forest was intended to be a place “where people cherish the natural surroundings and live in harmony with their neighbors.”
Nestled atop a high plateau not far from the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the charming neighborhood with a curious name still adamantly upholds its original vision.
“The sense of community attracted me to Sherwood Forest more than anything else,” said resident Bill Thomas, who moved in 1998 to the neighborhood from just a few miles down the road. Thomas, 85, has felt right at home ever since.
Thomas has dedicated himself to conservation of Western North Carolina's natural resources for more than three decades. He has championed efforts to protect the Horsepasture River, establish
Gorges State Park, and save the waterfalls in DuPont State Forest.
But no conservation efforts might be as dear to him as those taking place right outside his front door. Yet Thomas is far from the first to champion protecting Sherwood Forest's natural treasures.
“This development has had a strong conservation ethic since its very beginning,” he said.
According to Sherwood Forest resident Carolyn Mills, Arthur and Betty Kay Dehon, entrepreneurs from Columbia, S.C., initially sought to buy a small parcel of land near Brevard but ultimately purchased more than 1,000 acres in Cedar Mountain in 1957. They drew up plans to develop an extensive housing community, bestowing the monikers Sherwood Forest to the property and Robin Hood Inc. to their corporation. The names reference a once popular Robin Hood-themed inn and resort formerly houseed on the land.
From its inception, the natural character of the community was its focal point. Lots and roads were designed to minimize the loss of forest. “The Dehons insisted that prospective buyers walk rather than drive around so that the place would 'sell itself' with its diverse plant and animal life,” Mills wrote.
According to Thomas, Sherwood Forest lots were advertised extensively in Audubon Magazine.
“That attracted a lot of people in the 1960s and 1970s who were naturalists either by occupation or advocation. There soon accumulated a group of residents in Sherwood Forest who were really interested in the natural world. Mushroom specialists, bird specialists, plant specialists … it was pretty incredible.”
Each summer, the Dehons even hosted a live-in naturalist in the community to lead hikes and talks for residents. They also planted trees to fill open gaps in the forest as well as set aside land within the development to remain as green space. “The neighborhood had a remarkably strong orientation toward nature,” Thomas said.
After Robin Hood Inc. went bankrupt in 1990, the Sherwood Forest Homeowners Association assumed responsibility of property management as well as ownership of green spaces. To honor the Dehon's original vision, the HOA placed restrictive covenants on the green areas to uphold their natural status, requiring a significant majority vote by Sherwood Forest homeowners to ever permit their development.
Sherwood Forest HOA also established the Green Areas Committee to manage the natural character of these lands and to look out for their future. Thomas served as the committee's first chairman.
“One of the things about Sherwood Forest is that it's an all-volunteer organization. We have no paid staff or management. We do it all ourselves — which is key to promoting that feeling of community. Everybody knows everybody, and everyone is relying on everyone else to pitch in and make the place work,” Thomas explained.
Perhaps that's why shortly after formation of the HOA, residents banded together and used their own money to purchase about 260 acres of Sherwood Forest's green area threatened by sale through bankruptcy court.
“A lot of residents were worried about what might happen to that land,” Thomas said. “It was an incredible rising of the community to protect a natural area that they didn't want to be developed.”
Thomas became involved with the region's local land trust, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, in the early 2000s when Sherwood Forest sought CMLC's aid to deepen the commitment to conserving the green areas so beloved by its residents.
Once more, residents came together to buy more natural lands — three undeveloped house lots totaling 1.5 acres adjacent to existing green areas. After the purchase, residents donated the lots to the Sherwood Forest HOA for incorporation into its green areas and simultaneously placed a conservation easement on the properties through CMLC, forever protecting them from future development.
“When those lots were purchased for addition to the green areas and placed in a conservation easement, we hoped that it would serve as a template for other homeowners to follow,” Thomas said. “It showed that it wasn't difficult to achieve, and it protects the land indefinitely.”
A decade later, that template is still paying dividends in Sherwood Forest.
Following that model in 2012, Ted and Karen Ramsaur of Greenville, S.C., donated a 2.2-acre parcel within Sherwood Forest to the HOA while also protecting it with a conservation easement through CMLC. Ensuring that the land will forever remain in its natural state, the easement forever safeguards water quality directly along the Little River. It also protects significant biodiversity and natural communities found on the property, including an oxbow swamp, a remnant of the river's former course.
Ted's mother, Dorothy Ramsaur, had earlier purchased the property with the specific intention to save it from development, especially because the parcel was zoned for construction of condos directly on the river.
“She told me that if that I ever sold that property for development that she would come back and haunt me,” Ted Ramsaur said. “We wanted to carry out her wishes to protect it and benefit Sherwood Forest. It's not very big in size, but it's a critical property to conserve. It was a no-brainer.”
Ted's sister, Ecta White, is now following suit to honor her mother and protect more natural land in Sherwood Forest. She is one of several Sherwood Forest landowners who have since initiated projects with CMLC to similarly conserve land within the community.
“I think residents in Sherwood Forest really appreciate that these green areas exist, and that some of them are protected forever regardless of what the future holds,” Thomas said.
Thomas believes the Dehons would be proud.
“Their vision is still being realized, nearly a half century later. Today, Sherwood Forest residents cherish the natural surroundings and live in harmony with their neighbors more than ever.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.