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The Daily Tar Heel

State awarded $6.3 million for conservation easements in Neuse River Basin

The easements awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service helps to maintain the agricultural capability of farms.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) has been awarded $6.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to aid in the distribution of agricultural conservation easements. The conservation easements are intended for areas that have been affected by runoff during significant weather events in the Neuse River Basin.

The easements are tools that restrict residential, commercial and industrial development of properties to prevent harmful runoff, which can affect agricultural capability and the surrounding water, according to a press release from the NCDA&CS.

Evan Davis, NCDA&CS director of farmland preservation, said the awarded funds go to the USDA state office in North Carolina. Here, the department will match funds spent by farms on the conservation efforts. 

The main goal of implementing the easements is to maintain the agricultural capability of properties, he said. According to Davis, the easements remove the development rights from the properties, which reduces their impervious surfaces.

“By maintaining pervious surfaces, this will reduce runoff. And that's been one of the biggest factors in these flooding events down east, so with the growth in the Triangle, in the Piedmont, that means more roads, more rooftops, and that equates to more runoff," he said.

Davis said interested farmers or landowners should reach out to a county government or land trust, which are eligible recipients for grant funds. He said the organizations work as project managers to complete the conservation easements if they are awarded funds from the NCDA&CS.

“It's a great opportunity for landowners to maintain ownership of their property while receiving some potential compensation for the removal of the development rights,” he said. 

Davis said any landowners who are interested in learning more about the conservation easements should visit the NCDA&CS office.

Forrest Westall, the executive director of the Upper Neuse River Basin Association, said he has worked in the North Carolina water quality and resources sector for over 47 years. He said the farmland preservation effort maintains the existing nutrient balance in the area's water sources.

“If you preserve farmland and you set aside easements and conservation easements, particularly for these areas, long streams, wooded areas, then that is money that goes into the farming to allow the farmer to continue to farm that land,” he said. 

Westall said the easements on farmland for preservation will allow for the long-term stability and improve quality of the lakes and their nutrients in the surrounding areas. 

Farmland preservation fits into the idea of maintaining water quality in a watershed and doing everything possible to not increase nutrients, he said.

Christian Hirni, the land conservation manager for Orange County, works within the Lands Legacy program, which provides acquisition for conservation easements. He said easement implementation has been very successful over the years.

“We hold, I think, an estimated 43 conservation easements equaling over 2,000 acres,” Hirni said.

Some of the easements are held independently by Orange County, while others are held jointly between nonprofit partners or have been purchased by a private nonprofit, he said.

Applications for state funding opened on Oct. 9 and will close Dec. 18.

@DTHCityState |

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