By Emma Castleberry
In October, Conserving Carolina made two large land transfers that will protect and make public 900 acres of Little White Oak Mountain. This acreage includes 13 miles of streams which flow into White Oak Creek and on to the Green River. Six hundred acres of the mountain tract were transferred to the state of North Carolina, which will use it to expand the Green River Game Lands. The remaining 300 acres of land were transferred to Polk County for the creation of a local park. “It is a win-win on several fronts,” says Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina. “The beauty of the mountain and habitat for rare species will be permanently protected and new recreational opportunities will be created for local residents and visitors to the county.”
The acreage that was added to the Green River Game Lands, which includes the summit of Little White Oak, will be open to the public for hunting, hiking and wildlife viewing. The Polk County portion is connected to the county’s recreation complex, near Polk County Middle School. The planned park will feature seven to 10 miles of trails, including the first mountain biking trails in Polk County.
During the peak of the housing market, the side of Little White Oak Mountain was slated for a development with nearly 700 houses. The developer dropped these plans after the recession. In 2016, two local land trusts, Pacolet Area Conservancy and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, worked together to purchase more than 1,000 acres of the mountain in order to protect it from further development plans. These two land trusts merged to create Conserving Carolina in 2017. “It could not have been accomplished by either of the separate organizations acting alone, and this project helped to demonstrate the merits of joining forces to create a merged and unified new organization working regionally,” says Roe.
In the coming year, Conserving Carolina plans to convey another parcel at the foot of Little White Oak Mountain to the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC). “Conserving Carolina’s strategic plan has goals for reaching out to organizations addressing community needs in addition to conservation,” says Roe. “Now, an ill-advised, high-end housing development will be replaced by a more appropriately-scaled development for low and moderate income residents near schools and the new park.” Conserving Carolina and HAC are working together to construct a plan for affordable workforce housing, providing the opportunity for teachers, healthcare workers and small business owners to become homeowners. “The need and impact affordable housing has on individuals and families is undeniable,” says Ashlynn Landreth, community and resource development coordinator for HAC. “Research has shown that the availability of safe and affordable housing is one of the greatest social determinants of health.”
Like many WNC counties, Polk County has a high need for affordable housing. “Twenty-three percent of homeowners and 35 perfect of renters in the county are cost-burdened, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care,” says Landreth. “The outcome of the partnership between Conserving Carolina and HAC will allow Polk County residents greater housing options while preserving the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Conservation-based affordable housing opportunities could be the key to protecting a place and providing for the people.”
The Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) of Virginia has selected the affordable housing project at Little White Oak Mountain as the basis for a concept plan for conservation-based development. The GIC is writing a guide to conservation-based development for the Carolinas and will use the Little White Oak Mountain housing development as a case study. “The site has many opportunities to conserve sensitive environmental features while also providing a very beautiful and scenic development,” says Karen Firehock, executive director of the GIC. “We want to demonstrate that affordable housing can not only be affordable but also can provide amenities that one might expect only in high-end developments, such as open space, scenery, healthful lifestyles, walkability and cutting edge methods for treating stormwater. The impact of the site on the landscape will be minimized through green design while keeping the units affordable and desirable.”
These designs are being provided by GIC for free, supported by a grant from the NC Forestry Commission and the U.S. Forest Service. While the HAC isn’t bound to follow the plan the GIC creates, it will provide some guidelines for a conservation-based design.
Conserving Carolina is a local land trust dedicated to protecting land and water, promoting good stewardship, and creating opportunities for people to enjoy nature. For more information, visit ConservingCarolina.org.