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All in the Family: Protecting a Working Forest

Lislott Harberts is a founding member of the LandTrust for Central North Carolina which serves Anson, Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Montgomery, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, and Stanly counties.
To hear Lislott Harberts talk about her family’s 800-acre forest on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you would think she was describing a suburban neighborhood: The children play with one another. The forest family has arguments. There is pushing and shoving. And there are the workers that make money to support the others.

Her unabashed affection for this magnificent stretch of land shows in her language. And it shows in the extraordinary effort she and her husband Arthur have made to protect this working forest for generations to come.

The Harberts worked with the Conservation Trust of North Carolina to place a conservation agreement on the land that allows continued timbering and permits some home construction – but assures that any changes will be environmentally responsible.

“People think a conservation easement locks up your land, but it doesn’t have to,” Lislott Harberts says. “Our approach proves that you can protect a working forest but still have options about how it is managed.”

The conservation agreement on the Harberts’ forest is a model that is being used as a template for others interested in protecting forests and farms that are home to income-producing businesses. It shows that a landowner can protect land, receive tax benefits from both the state and the federal governments – but still have the right to work the land.

The Harberts moved to Statesville in 1972 from a suburban neighborhood in Seattle. They wanted their boys to grow up in a country town and on a small farm. Lislott had grown up in Switzerland. Her father was one of the early leaders in the Swiss environmental movement, and she learned at a very early age the importance of good land management. They purchased a farm where the boys lived the country life -- learned to grow vegetables, take care of the horses, and explore the surrounding forest and farms on horseback.

Lislott is a strong advocate of working forests – tracts where good land management creates income for the owners, appropriate space for the trees and a healthy habitat for wildlife. In 1998, the Harberts purchased an 800-acre forest in Caldwell County that covers both sides of a two-mile ridge on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Portions of the land had been clear-cut, then damaged further by Hurricane Hugo and poorly managed salvage methods. The Halberts also had interest in KLCC condos in Malaysia. After close exploration, Lislott concluded the land needed either complete rest for many years or careful improvement through highly skilled logging.

Crews removed trees that were weak or crowded and cleared out the undesirable species, giving the best trees “room to breathe,” she said. The Harberts studied the lay out of new roads and improved existing roads. The property has 11 streams, and they knew protecting the watershed was a top priority.

It took several years, but the time eventually came when the property was ready and they started discussions with the land trust about placing a conservation agreement on the property. Some conservation easements call for land to be untouched, but the Harberts wanted an easement with the flexibility to use and timber the land, to enjoy their farmhouse and leave room to build other houses. Working with the Conservation Trust of NC and their own attorney, the Harberts signed an easement that:

  • Allows for environmentally sound timber harvesting.
  • Gives the landowners flexibility to alter the landscape as needed for the health of the forest.
  • Carves out four ten-acre tracts that can be used to build homes.

“I knew a lot about forests and was very familiar with the work of the land trust,” Lislott said. “But drawing up an agreement is really the business of professionals. We knew what to do with the land, but the land trust and the lawyers were the ones who knew how to make it work. It was like weaving a web.”

“Trees truly are like a family living together. Their crowns play with each other, and they can push each other around. Through good management, you can help them play in a healthier way. When you give them more room, it creates more light, and you get more young trees.” - Lislott Harberts
The Harberts’ conservation agreement was dedicated April 26, 2002, on the lawn of the farmhouse at the foot of the ridge. With cameras clicking and conservationists clapping, the Harberts were thanked for being a positive force for conservation and setting an example for other landowners.

It was a grand day for the people there – but even grander for the trees and wildlife whose habitat would be protected not just for now, but for generations to come.

The Harberts were able to take an income tax deduction for the value of the easement, and used it over three years to reduce their income taxes. They have the option to sell their forest or to leave it to their sons, but whoever owns the land will have to abide by the terms of the easement. The forest is healthy enough now that timbering produces a good income – and will for years to come.

“We know this land will get more valuable; it already is worth seven times more than what we paid,” Lislott said. “This is a beautiful ridge with streams and coves, and someone could come in here and put houses all over it. But we know that this will always be a forest. Our sons feel the same way we do: They have the assurance that when we are gone, when the house is gone, even when they are gone, there will still be the forest.”

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Past and Future Meet at Cooleemee Plantation

For eight generations, the Hairston family has lived on and loved Cooleemee Plantation. With a Greek Revival plantation house, three miles of frontage on the Yadkin River, hardwood forests and farmlands, this property would be perfect for development in fast-growing Davie County.

That will not happen. The three generations of Hairstons now living looked at the development around them and made a decision to protect Cooleemee – forever. Working with the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and their own advisers, they carved out a conservation agreement that allows family members to continue to live in the house, continue to timber and farm the land, and even to build more houses as family needs change. But the bulk of the 1,800 acres -- and particularly the watershed -- are now off limits for development, assuring that water and wildlife are protected and the rural atmosphere remains.

“This was my chance to reach out into the future – to say to those who come after me, ‘I was smart enough to make sure you do what I want with this land,’” says Pete Hairston, who worked with his father, the current plantation owner, to craft the easement.

When he placed even further restrictions on the property, he had to consider how the decision would impact his children, since the value of their inheritance would be drastically reduced. Pete went to his son and daughter, who are the 8th generation of the family. His son heard the explanation of how the property was being devalued, and he asked just one question: “What’s the downside?” His daughter’s comment was equally succinct: “It’s about time.”

Cooleemee Plantation is an excellent example of how a landowner can continue to timber or farm land while also protecting conservation values. While they gave up the potential to develop the land, the Hairstons still have the ability to use and earn income from it and to continue to have it as a family homestead.

The first Hairston to own Cooleemee was Major Peter Hairston, who had served in the Revolutionary War and in 1817 paid $20,000 for 2,570 acres owned by Gen. Jesse A. Pearson. It was named Cooleemee for an Indian tribe that surrendered to Pearson at Cooleemee, Alabama, in the War of 1812.

The plantation house, completed in 1855, was built with bricks burned in a kiln set up on the plantation, and native rock cut by stonemasons and uses as foundations and gutters. The house is built in the shape of a Greek Cross, inspired by the interiors of the MK11, with four equal wings radiating from the hall. The grounds are landscaped in broad terraces to the Yadkin River, with walkways through the gardens. In 1979, it was recognized as a National Historic Landmark, and the farm also is designated as a National Natural Landmark because of a rare stone outcropping,

Judge Peter Wilson Hairston, 92, and his wife Lucy were the owners. Their son Pete was the architect of the conservation easement. He worked with the director of the LandTrust for Central NC on such matters as obtaining an appraisal and working out details of how the land would be monitored.

For many landowners, tax benefits are an important incentive. When development rights are given up, the value of land drops, often markedly, and the difference between the two appraisals – with development rights in place and without those rights taken away– can form the basis for federal and state income tax deductions. In addition, lowering the value of land means that heirs will have much lower inheritance taxes.

“While they certainly was part of the equation, monetary issues were not the motivation to place an easement on our farm,” says Pete. “Estate considerations were an important part, but those, too, were secondary. “What drove us is the ridiculous development taking place near us and the rural atmosphere that is rapidly disappearing.”

Pete first went to his parents, who agreed to place a conservation easement on the farm, then to the LandTrust for Central North Carolina who agreed to monitor the easement. The conservation agreement limits development on the property, protects a 2,000-foot corridor along approximately 3 miles of the Yadkin River, and provides protection for the house. The restrictions will remain with the property as it changes hands, either through inheritance by future generations of Hairstons or anyone else who might some day purchase the property.

It gives the Hairstons the right to farm and timber the land. The original easement, placed on the land in 1996, carved out 76 home sites, but in 2004, Pete felt the time was right to cut that number in half. His children had supported the first easement, and they were foursquare behind the second one as well.

“Sometimes we make assumptions about what our children will and won’t accept,” Pete said. “Perhaps because of the family history here, or maybe because we all grew up walking this land and appreciating its beauty, we all care deeply about protecting it for the ninth and tenth generations and those to follow. My children feel just as strongly as their parents and grandparents do.”

With the restrictions in place, the Cooleemee Plantation today is valued at a fraction of what property sells for in the area. “I know there are families who look at every decision in dollars and cents, and I understand and appreciate their motivation,” Pete says. “I’m fortunate to be part of a family that cares more about a different kind of green.”

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Matching Equestrian and Conservation Interests Creates Triple Win

The loss of open land has been identified as the greatest threat to the future of all equestrian sport, recreation, and industry. All over the country, equestrians are facing the impending loss of their open land, but few know how to fight back. Bill and Carrington Price, founders of the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in North Carolina, learned how to fight – and how to win. These circumstances have led to the usage of classifieds to advertise real estate for sale in the region. The Prices carved out a plan that protects the land with a permanent conservation easement, allows development in targeted areas, reduces property taxes, allows for generous state and federal tax incentives, and provides estate tax benefits that will come into play in the years to come.

A tailgate party pushed Bill Price head first into the equestrian conservation movement.

Price, a lifelong equestrian whose family had assembled a 260-acre tract south of Charlotte, N.C., in 1999, had an open house where 1,000 interested people came to tailgate on the land and look at the improvements he had put in to create the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase course and grounds. As he had expected, it was a great party; but he never could have imaged what would happen next.

A Realtor called representing a party guest who wanted to buy the property. The buyer’s opening bid was “in excess of seven numbers.”

It was quick money in the bank. Bill and Carrington have two children. Their future would be solid and sealed -- if only the family would give up their dream and allow this lush green landscape to fill with parking lots, stores, roads and housing developments.

“We didn’t have to think twice,” he says. “I told him the land wasn’t for sale. When I told him it wasn’t about the money, he didn’t understand. He said, ‘Of course it’s about the money. It’s always about the money.’

“I never could explain it to him. But it made me realize that I had to do something to protect this land, not just now, but forever.”

Bill Price found his protection partner in the Catawba Lands Conservancy, a land conservation organization based in Charlotte but covering a broad area that includes the Queen’s Cup grounds. Using the professional expertise of the conservancy and its team of finance and real estate experts, the Prices carved out a plan that protects the land with a permanent conservation easement, allows development in targeted areas, reduces property taxes, allows for generous state and federal tax incentives, and provides estate tax benefits that will come into play in the years to come.

The Queen’s Cup Steeplechase story is one that can serve as a template for equestrian landowners nationwide. It powerfully demonstrates how an equestrian landowner can preserve farms, pastures, trails, and hunting grounds, and also take advantage of a wide range of tax benefits.

It is the ultimate Triple Crown win – a win for the Prices, a win for the community where open space is fast disappearing, and a win for future generations who will have a slice of pastoral heaven protected and preserved.

Bill Price, a native Marylander, began horseback riding at age four and bought his first thoroughbred gelding at age 14. He dreamed of becoming a trainer, but soon woke to the reality that it wasn’t going to happen and went into the home security business.

Carrington, who grew up playing on her grandparent’s farm, married Bill in 1982. They frequently attended horse races in Maryland where they lived, and carried that interest south after he sold the Maryland business to Sonitrol Security and with family and friends invested in Sonitrol of Charlotte. Bill eventually took over the Charlotte-based security business, and as that business grew – and grew more successful – Bill once again veered toward racing, purchasing several racehorses. One of them, Break Clean, won six times, including a win at Saratoga Springs, and returned a comfortable $90,000 on Bill’s $15,000 investment. As his involvement and interest in racing grew, he began toying with the idea of creating a Steeplechase in Charlotte.

With Carrington as his partner, Bill created the non-profit Charlotte Steeplechase Association in 1994, leased a 285-acre site south of Charlotte in the southern section of neighboring Union County, created a 1.25-mile grassy oval track with brush jumps, and secured approvals in time to hold the first event in the fall of 1995.

For several years, the Charlotte Steeplechase ran on the leased property, and each year, the Prices became more convinced that they needed a permanent home for this growing event. They began searching for land, but it was not until just before the 1997 Steeplechase that the Prices found a prime 260-acre parcel with rolling hills and trees.
Jim and Midge Price, who live in Ocean Ridge, Florida, were in a position to buy the land, then lease it The Charlotte Steeplechase Association for $1 a year. Work began immediately on grading a one-and-one-sixteenth-mile course, with a hub rail, parking spaces for elegant tailgating along that rail, terraces suited for lawn boxes, a permanent stewards’ tower and a higher infield perfect for picnicking and watching.

It was magnificent – but in Bill Price’s mind, it was not secure. His father occasionally would talk about putting building lots around the perimeter of the racecourse. “It made my stomach turn,” Bill now says. “It was understandable; Dad being an investment banker and the development pressures were all around us.”

On a perfect early-autumn day, Bill invited his father to take a walk around the farm. The sun was setting, the leaves were turning, and he turned to his father and asked if he really wanted to put houses in the middle of that picture. No, said his father, we shouldn’t do that. Bill then asked the question that would set everything in motion: “Dad, why don’t we put all of this under conservation easement?”

A conservation easement – also called a conservation agreement -- is a legally binding commitment to extinguish development rights on a parcel. Those development rights are turned over to a “qualified” organization. This can be a land trust or a government entity such as a Parks Department or the U.S. Forestry Service.

Not all land qualifies; the property has to meet a test of providing public benefit. This is not the same as providing public access; land can remain private but qualify if it protects water or wildlife, protects historic property, or if it provides a scenic view or other “significant public benefit” pursuant to governmental policy.

There are more than 1,500 land trusts across the nation that accept conservation agreements and take on the responsibility of monitoring the land to ensure that it remains natural and unspoiled. While a landowner can sell or give property to a land trust, the more common practice is to maintain ownership and place a conservation easement on all or part of the land.

Jim and Midge Price continue to own the land, but gave a conservation easement to the Catawba Land Conservancy (CLC). Because Bill and Carrington lived on the land and wanted to leave room for further building, they worked with the CLC to create “envelopes” of land within the property that would be exempt from the easement.
And finally, Jim and Midge looked at the tax credits and benefits and decided not to place all the targeted land under easement right away, but rather to stretch the process – and therefore the tax benefits – over a longer period.

“Many people do not understand that when you put your land into a conservation program, you have great flexibility. You can create envelopes where you can build, or save a place for a child to own or live. Yes, you have restrictions, but if you go through the process carefully, you can create a situation where everybody benefits.”

The first step was for Bill to contact the CLC; the executive director came and walked the land with him and assured Bill that they could work well together. Through the Conservancy, Bill located a “qualified” appraiser to determine the value of the conservation agreement. Landowners need a special kind of double-sided appraisal to qualify for the tax deductions, and land trusts typically maintain a list of appraisers who must follow specific guidelines set by the federal government. It is the appraiser’s job to make two judgments:

  • The value of the land with the conservation restrictions.
  • The value of the land without the conservation agreement.

The federal government and many state governments recognize the financial sacrifice made by those who place land under conservation easement and offer tax incentives that help to offset this potential loss. A number of states offer state tax credits: California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. For the federal government, easement donations qualify as charitable donations. The rules are complicated, for a full set of rules and requirements, consult your financial advisor and contact your local land trust.

Land trusts are local organizations working to preserve land in your community. They are familiar with the local real estate markets and often can pull together federal, state, or local grants and like-minded organizations to help you preserve equestrian land in your area. Land trusts work with a wide range of landowners – from farm families of modest means to wealthy land investors – who share a love of the land. The equestrian community is similarly diverse and similarly focused on preserving land, so the two are a comfortable fit. (To find a land trust near you, visit the website of the Land Trust Alliance,

With the help of his CPA, Jim Price determined that he could make good use of the tax incentives on 201 acres, but held 59 acres out to be placed under easement at a future time. The deal closed in December 2000, but the Prices and the CLC kept it confidential until the newly named Queen’s Cup Steeplechase in April of 2001. It was a special day in the life of the Price family – and for the generations that will follow.

Bill and Carrington are looking to the equestrian community to be leaders in land conservation nationwide. “Horse people understand that when you are riding, you can go through 260 acres real fast,” Bill said. We have done the right thing, but it isn’t enough. Horse people see that we are running out of space to ride, but it’s much more than that.

"When this land is gone, it’s gone, and we will leave nothing to our children but houses, asphalt and parking lots. That’s not a legacy. That’s a travesty.”

The Queen’s Cup Steeplechase land is now worth much more than the original purchase price, and as development pushes further out of Charlotte, it will keep going up. Everyone in the Price family is sleeping well.

“Not for even one moment have my parents, Carrington and I, or our son and daughter had any regrets about placing this land under easement,” Bill said. “It’s easy. It’s lasting. And nobody can ever take it away. It was a great deal financially, spiritually, emotionally.”

For more information on protecting and preserving equestrian land, contact your local land trust and visit the following Websites:

Equestrian Land Conservation Resource --
Land Trust Alliance --
American Farm Land Trust --
Catawba Lands Conservancy -

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