A little more of Clarke County is protected, thanks to an Athens couple and the Oconee River Land Trust.
Late last year, Smith Wilson and his Dianne Penny made it official; signing the papers that put about 70 percent of their 50-acre farm into a conservation easement held by the trust.
“We’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” said Penny, an artist.
Last year, they finally went through the process of donating a conservation easement on the Morton Road farm they share with two dogs, two mules, two Percheron horses that weigh nearly a ton each, and occasionally with grown daughters Elizabeth and Catherine when they come to visit from Atlanta or New York.
The front part is the farm, including their house, pasture for the horses, a smokehouse built by Wilson’s great-grandfather in 1885, which the couple still uses to smoke hams, and a horse-drawn buggy his grandfather bought more than a century ago.
The protected acreage, once played-out cotton fields but now hardwood forest, backs up to Shoals Creek, part of the watershed of the Oconee River.
“Our first reason for doing this is protection of watershed property,” said Wilson, a retired building contractor whose preservation development projects include The Bottleworks on Prince Avenue. He is also member of a volunteer citizen committee that oversees sales tax-funded projects of the Clarke County School District.
The couple’s easement is not the largest property the Oconee River Land Trust protects, and far from the only one. But it’s notable for the nonprofit organization for a couple of reasons.
One is that it helps mark an anniversary for the trust, now turning 25 years old.
Another reason is that Wilson is the chairman of the trust’s board. It’s the second time one of the land trust’s board chairs has donated such an easement, said Carla Francis, the trust’s outreach and development coordinator.
Statewide, the land trust helped property owners put more than 6,000 acres into protection last year, including a site in Greene County that’s home to a rare and endangered plant and a tract of black belt prairie in Houston County, Francis said.
The group now oversees about 32,000 acres of protected land in some 120 easements, Wilson said. They are in 31 of Georgia’s 59 counties, including most of those around Athens.
Easement donors have to pay for an assessment of their property and another fee paid to the land trust, which is responsible for inspecting the property annually to make sure subsequent property owners are obeying the terms of the easement. The agreement allows for just one house ever to be built on the property under the Morton Road easement, Wilson said.
The landowner can get federal and state income tax write-offs for a charitable donation, and lower property taxes, based on the property’s value before and after the easement. Many of the land trust’s 2017 easements were finalized in December, Francis said.
Landowners give up certain development rights, which can vary from property to property.
“We tell people, ‘Don’t do it for the tax advantage,” Wilson said. “Do it for the preservation value.”