Foster Creek Preserve being acquired by conservancy

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, December 22, 2016

COLUMBUS– The Town of Columbus has given its blessing for new recreation and housing opportunities for the former Foster Creek Preserve development that includes 1,068 acres.

Columbus Town Council met on Dec. 15 and heard from Debbie Shetterly, project manager with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, which is planning to acquire the development.

Foster Creek is located on Houston Road and Hwy. 108 and was satellite annexed into Columbus city limits several years ago to accommodate Foster Creek. Columbus approved a development agreement with Foster Creek in 2011, which will need to be amended to fit Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s plans for the property.

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Shetterly said the conservation community has been trying to preserve the property for years. She said the developers have indicated they have no interest in ever developing the land.

Since early 2006, Foster Creek was planning to have over 800 residences on the steep slopes of White Oak and Little White Oak Mountains. At the time the development came in, Columbus imposed a moratorium on development and adopted new, more strict ordinances, particularly for building on steep slopes. The owners of Foster Creek are The American Land Fund.

Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, in partnership with the Pacolet Area Conservancy are working together to preserve the land to provide hunting, birding, photography, hiking and biking opportunities, to connect with the existing Polk County Recreation Complex and to provide workforce housing.

Shetterly said Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy anticipates partnering with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Polk County Recreation, the Polk County Community Foundation and the Housing Assistance Corporation on the project.

Approximately 300 acres of the property is proposed to be used as a park and addition to the current Polk County Recreation Complex, approximately 30 acres on the flat area along Houston Road is proposed to be approximately 40 workforce homes, and the plan is to also have a conservation easement protecting the majority of the property in perpetuity.

Shetterly said the acquisition will cost the town nothing and provide recreational opportunities within the town limits of Columbus as well as Polk County.

Shetterly said the town will need to amend the existing development agreement at some time in the future and in order to amend the agreement a public meeting is required.

Councilman Mark Phillips said the analysis is that it will cost the town nothing, but actually the town stands to lose tax revenue, which is currently $20,000-$25,000 annually on the property.

Shetterly said the housing estimate is approximately $36,000 in tax revenue for the town.

Housing Assistance Executive Director Sarah Grymes said the housing cooperation has been in Henderson County for several years and has done about 300 single family homes in Henderson County. Owners put 62 percent of their own sweat equity into building the homes, which makes it affordable for working people. The homes being built now are worth about $180,000, Grymes said, with some appraising for over $200,000. Mortgages are between $550-$650 per month.

Sean Rose, residential project manager with Housing Assistance, said the homes are typically three bedrooms and two baths, but they do have a four-bedroom plan for larger families. The homes are built through USDA loans with homeowners required to put in 10-15 hours per week of work. Rose said everyone works on everyone’s house in a community and they all move in at the same time. Rose said 30 acres would likely fit 40-60 homes.

Columbus Mayor Eric McIntyre said it is a beautiful piece of property and he is so glad for what the conservancy has planned. He cautioned them to look at the development agreement because there were many demands the town made in terms of density and tree cutting, but the town will work with them. McIntyre also said the timeline is pretty aggressive.

December, Shetterly said, is when the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy plans to complete the initial purchase of the tract. From January through September 2017, the conservancy plans to solidify funding partners. Between January and December 2017 the conservancy plans to finalize the project structure and composition and the conservancy plans to complete the buyout with partners in December 2017. In 2018 the partners plan to begin establishing park features and access points and Housing Assistance plans to initialize procedures to complete the housing project.

Rose said construction on the homes will not begin until 2018.

Phillips said Foster Creek Preserve was going to generate a lot of revenue for the town in taxes and in water and now the town is basically giving that away.

“I’m having a lot of reservations in the loss of income the town is going to take,” Phillips said.

Grymes said Housing Assistance cannot afford to extend the town’s water and sewer to the development.

“The cost of the sewer line would be a deal breaker for us,” Grymes said. “We don’t have $1 million to extend the sewer line.”

Councilwoman Margaret Metcalf said the partners should also be aware the town could de-annex the property and it would go back to the county.

“We have to think about profit and how much we would get,” said Metcalf.

McIntyre said if The American Land Fund has no desire to develop the property, the town’s tax revenue is gone.

“$36,000 is more than we would get if we de-annexed it,” McIntyre said.

Metcalf said she thinks what the conservancy has planned is needed here and she really likes the idea, but she wants them to be aware that de-annexing is something the town could do.

Metcalf also said even if the town made $36,000 in tax revenue off the homes, the town’s police would still have to patrol out there.

Rose said the homes Housing Assistance builds are typically 1,200-1,400 square feet.

Columbus Assistant Finance Director Kathy Gregory said homes that size are not going to assess for $180,000. Gregory said she’d like to look at more details, but at quick glance it will be less than $30,000 per year in tax revenue for the town.

Resident Ernie Kan said about 10 years ago the people in this area were discussing Foster Creek in meetings that were standing room only.

“They didn’t want to see that mountain developed,” Kan said. “Now we have the opportunity to stop that mountain from being developed.”

Kan said the town planning board had experts come in from all over the state who said development on the mountain was a bad idea. Others told the town there are a lot of endangered plants on the property that would be taken out as well as the loss of the scenery.

Kan said she understands the town might be losing a lot of income but the town needs to think about things it was going to lose if the property is developed like Foster Creek was proposing. She mentioned roads proposed that were too narrow for the fire department trucks to turn around and the developers were going to construct them anyway.

“I think if we are all welcoming this housing we will win in the end because people will want to come here,” Kan said.

Les Potter said he sees a lot of potential in the proposal for increasing tourism in Columbus, speaking of his many customers at Winding Creek Brewery who like to go hiking and are always searching for new trails.

“When you’re looking at revenues, tax revenues aren’t the only revenues we need to be looking at,” said Potter.

Phil Feagan said what the land conservancy is looking at from the town immediately is that they have an open mind to the concept and the openness to move in a different direction on the development agreement.

“The reality is this developer is not going to develop that land,” said Feagan. “You are not going to get that pot of gold that was anticipated.”

He said with this proposal the town could at least get what it gets currently in tax revenue and can also do something really good for the town and the county.

Councilman Richard Hall said some things are much more valuable than money. Hall showed a picture of views, saying the views were more valuable than money.

“To me, this is a golden opportunity,” said Hall.