By Jake Flannick
When a quiet stretch of undeveloped land southeast of Asheville came up for auction, John Ager had already taken notice, making arrangements with a neighbor and a cousin to acquire the wooded expanse. The idea was to preserve the property, which had remained in the same family for generations.
The group went on to win a lengthy bidding process, not long thereafter putting more than half of the parcel under a conservation easement. At the same time, they laid the groundwork for a secluded residential community, one that would blend into its surroundings.
“I was fretting about it,” says Ager, a state representative who lives with his wife, Annie, in an old inn next to the property that once served as a stagecoach stop. “I really wanted to protect the land.”
More than a decade later, Drovers Road Preserve is being reintroduced to the public, after development there halted years ago. There are about two dozen residential lots ranging from one and a half to ten acres, though less than half of them are occupied by houses.
Encompassing 190 acres of meadows and woodlands just east of Fairview, Drovers Road is the oldest conservation subdivision in Buncombe County, weaving together land preservation and residential development. The name harkens back to the trail through the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains where men and boys drove flocks of turkeys and geese, or herds of hogs or cattle to South Carolina markets. The property is surrounded by agricultural land including Flying Cloud and Hickory Nut Gap farms, both run by members of the Ager family.
“The developers wanted to have an influence on how the neighborhood around them would be developed to fit in with their own properties and heritage, and have a legacy for the next generation,” says co-listing agent Christie Melear, a residential broker with Beverly-Hanks & Associates Realtors, who lives less than a mile away. “The property is dear to their hearts.”
On a recent spring evening, Melear offered a tour of the property, where she once rode horses with her now-grown daughter. Throughout the hilly landscape are old-growth trees and rhododendrons. There are hiking trails, streams and covered picnic areas, as well as an old horse trail around the perimeter. As for the eight custom-built houses, they have a contemporary, woodsy aesthetic.
Drovers Road appeared on the market around 2004, a couple of years or so after Ager and the others acquired it and formed their development company. While it attracted attention—more than a dozen lots were sold between 2004 and 2008, Melear says—none were sold after 2009 amid the economic downturn. And last year, they were taken off the market, their prices deemed too high.
But the lots reappeared on the market in May, after the land was resurveyed and some of its trails rerouted. One house is under construction, and plans for another are underway.
“We feel like this is a good moment to reintroduce and sell the remaining lots,” Ager says.
Buncombe County is home to more than 73,000 acres of protected land, including properties under conservation easements. At Drovers Road, the easement is held by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, which recently relocated from downtown to a new office space at 372 Merrimon Avenue in Asheville.
In the mid-2000s, the county board of commissioners created the Land Conservation Advisory Board, of which Ager and Melear are longtime members. The board reviews requests from private landowners wishing to protect their property in perpetuity through conservation easements, making recommendations to the commissioners as a way to help finance such arrangements. While landowners no longer receive state tax credits for conserving property through donations or easements, they are eligible for federal tax deductions that are based on the difference between the appraised value of a property if development there is possible and when it is not possible. For many, it is not about the tax benefits, it is about their love for their land.
Beyond preserving the land and its natural resources, conservation properties tend to make surrounding real estate more attractive.
“Developers who provide green space and protect some of the land’s attributes like old-growth trees enhance the neighborhood they are creating,” says Melear, who helped design the Ashbrook and Bridgewater communities in the Cane Creek Valley. Moreover, “it helps with the ‘community spirit’ of the development, because it is usually conservation-minded people who want to live there.”
Such efforts usually don’t go unnoticed. “If some people do it,” Melear says, “then their neighbors may be inclined to do it. I am grateful for the many good land stewards we have in these mountains.”
To learn more about Drovers Road Preserve, call Christie Melear at 828.776.1986 or Carol Fisk at 828.674.0441.