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The Keith Arboretum debate is contentious, but it doesn't have to be confusing

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Contention surrounds the future of the Keith Arboretum as Chapel Hill residents push back against the entities that control it. 

Neighbors of the arboretum met on Wednesday to hear from Orange County employees and the land owner about the current use of the property and what its future might hold.

Pickoretum, LLC, which is owned by Unique Places, LLC, purchased the arboretum in 2016, according to the Unique Places website. In December 2017, Unique Places, LLC, sold 50 percent of Pickoretum, LLC, to its non-profit partner, Unique Places to Save. 

While both Unique Places, LLC, and Unique Places to Save focus on land conservation, Unique Places, LLC, operates as a business and invested in the Keith Arboretum as a profit-generating venture.

Keith Arboretum, located at 2131 Marions Ford Road, is protected by an agreement between the owner of the property and Orange County, known as a conservation easement. The conservation easement, signed in 2005, limits the allowed uses of the property in order to protect the conservation values of the land. 

Prohibited uses of the land include commercial development and commercial timbering. The land can be used only for recreational, educational and scientific purposes. 

Neighbors said they worry about the potential misuse of the arboretum, which was planted by Charles Keith beginning in the 1970s, following an April meeting of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. At the meeting, an amendment was proposed which would alter the conditions of the easement.

“The changes to the easement would weaken the easement, and no one was aware of that,” Susan Walser, a neighbor of the arboretum, said. “To be honest, I think the write up of the changes to the easement was poorly done. We believe that it was poorly presented to the commissioners.” 

The amendment to the 2005 conservation easement was presented by the land owner at the April 17th BOCC meeting, but tabled after community members expressed concern over potential consequences.

The amendment would have allowed for doubling the size of land area the owner could build on, and would have granted the owner permission to keep bees or allow others to keep bees on the property. Pickoretum, LLC, is no longer pursuing the amendment. 

David Harper, executive director of Unique Places to Save, said at the Wednesday meeting that the Unique Places to Save board will be voting on acquiring a greater percentage of Pickoretum, LLC, and therefore the Keith Arboretum.

“Because of this partnership, the Keith Arboretum has a chance to become a community asset that it was intended to be all along,” Harper said.

Keith Arboretum, located at 2131 Marions Ford Road, is under contention by the people who live around it, the Orange County and its owners. Photo courtesy to Travis Bordley.

CEO of Unique Places, LLC, Jeff Fisher said contention over the arboretum began when Pickoretum, LLC, asked neighbors to register and pay to use arboretum land through a service called Romr. Fisher said the program helped with the financial upkeep of the arboretum and took away the legal liability of Pickoretum, LLC, should an injury happen on the property.

“I noticed that the tone shifted when I started asking people to step up and be helpful, and that’s when the animosity started,” Fisher said. 

Fisher said that since Romr was implemented, he has been called names and was assaulted by a neighbor on the arboretum property. 

Keith Arboretum no longer uses Romr following pushback from neighbors over the terms of Romr’s services. 

Kim Livingston, the land conservation manager for Orange County, said the county recently completed its 2018 monitoring check on the property and found the owner to be in compliance with the conservation easement. 

Neighbors of the arboretum expressed concern over the building of a new deck and the keeping of bees on the property. 

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Owners recently added a deck to the existing building on the property, which they did not register with the county. The deck, however, meets the specifications of the easement, Livingston said. 

The bees kept at Keith Arboretum are also allowed, as they are within the horticulture section of the property, and any funds made from the bees go toward the maintenance of the arboretum. 

“I feel like some of the neighbors have some of the facts, but they’re understanding them not quite correctly,” Livingston said. “Orange County is upholding this conservation easement. There was never an intent or plan to diminish the values of this property or the conservation easement.” 

Pickoretum, LLC did break the conservation easement by marketing the building on the property for weddings and other events. Livingston said the county sent the owner a letter stating that they must remove the advertisements for events at the property. 

Fisher said Orange County had originally told the company in a letter that they could host weddings and other events as long as they had recreational or educational elements to them. 

The Keith Arboretum website still offers private rentals of the arboretum and building for weddings and other events. 

“Available starting in April 2018, a large covered deck and veranda will also be available for events, dinner parties and receptions. Seating will be available for 100,” the website said. 

Harper said Unique Places to Save wants to move away from hosting events to generate money for the maintenance of the property. Instead, he said he wants to find donors that would provide the funds. 

Following the meeting, Keith Arboretum neighbors were still unsure about the ownership and use of the land.

“I don’t really think we have a lot of clarity, and I think we need to talk to David and try to figure out if this model will work here and if the neighbors would support it,” neighbor Barbara Trent said.

Fisher, however, said he has not been able to have constructive conversations with arboretum neighbors. 

“I am disheartened by my neighbors,” Fisher said. “When you start denigrating and call people 'dickheads,' all you do is shut communication down, and that is exactly what they have successfully done with me.”

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