Almost four decades ago, Rick Merrill of Flat Rock was drawn to Western North Carolina by its stunning beauty and natural character. Little did he know back then that he would eventually devote so much of himself to preserving what drew him here in the first place.
“They said something about mountains and waterfalls,” recalled Merrill, 63, when selecting his placement for a public service position with VISTA — a precursor to the AmeriCorps program — in 1969. “When I heard that, I raised my hand.”
Soon, Merrill found himself serving in Green River, where he assisted former mill workers suffering from brown lung. Here he met and married his wife, JoAnne — who was serving with VISTA in Clear Creek — and they never left.
By the 1980s, Rick and JoAnne purchased a tract of land in Flat Rock where they constructed a home and a horse farm. There, they raised three children and hosted eight riding horses while Merrill built a career in real estate.
From the onset, they were enchanted by the secluded natural charm of the farm — enough that they longed to prevent any further changes to it. “We never wanted to see it developed. We wanted it to always be a horse farm,” Merrill explained.
The Merrills chose to partner with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) in 2004 to place a conservation easement on about eight acres of their property in order to ensure its permanent protection. The easement would prevent any further development on the land during their lifetime and for generations beyond.
The easement had considerable benefit to the community and region by preserving the scenic natural character of its woodlands and pastures, keeping intact wildlife habitat, and safeguarding water quality. The tract hosts tributaries that directly feed a rare southern Appalachian bog on King Creek.
Mountain bogs are one of the rarest and most imperiled habitats in our region, once occupying more than 5,000 acres. Today, less than 10 percent of these wetlands remain — a particular concern since they hosts numerous rare plant and animal species as well as filter pollution out of stormwater while helping to slow and hold it to lessen flooding.
Merrill's land contains a small portion of the King Creek Bog and safeguards the waters directly flowing into the rest of it. Merrill said, “The bog could be compromised if this property wasn't protected from development.”
Merrill's act to protect local natural resources ultimately proved to be just one of many he has taken to support conservation in our region. He discovered that while the easement had positive impacts that extended to the entire community, it also provided financial benefit to his family in the form of tax savings.
“The theory behind a conservation tax credit is that conserving land is good for the public at large. It's good for the community, it's good for the state, and it's good for the nation,” Merrill said. “It's a win-win.”
This experience of conserving his own land inspired Merrill to get actively involved in CMLC's efforts. That same year, he joined the organization's Land Committee — a group that evaluates the merits of potential projects based on conservation values — and was able to lend his real estate knowledge toward the process of protecting more land.
In the decade since, Merrill's contribution to CMLC and the conservation projects it has achieved has been extensive. Beyond the committee, his most impactful role has been informing his clients about conservation easements. “Then I make the introduction to CMLC, and oftentimes the rest is history,” he said.
In addition to his own property, Merrill is responsible for directing 10 more projects — totaling 778 acres — to CMLC that resulted in newly protected lands. This includes now-conserved tracts at Seniard Creek in Mills River, Wildcat Rock in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, and The Cabin Ridge in Edneyville. He also convinced his next-door neighbors to place a conservation easement on their property in Flat Rock.
To every one of his clients, Merrill presents the option of conserving land and preaches its widespread benefit. “They can save land, save their legacy, and save money,” he said. “It doesn't get any better than that.”
Also credit Merrill as an indirect source for several more worthy properties that ended up in CMLC's permanent protection, having educated more than 100 of his fellow agents at Beverly-Hanks & Associates and other brokers across the region in the nuts and bolts of conservation easements.
“It doesn't go more than a couple months where I don't get a call from other agents asking about conservation easements. I've raised the bar within our firm to be aware of conservation and how clients and the community can benefit,” he said.
In 2009, a conversation Merrill had with another agent ultimately led former Congressman Charles Taylor to CMLC in pursuit of the protection of his 8,000-acre East Fork Headwaters tract in Transylvania County. To date, CMLC and partners have acquired more than 4,000 of those acres — teeming with clean water, mountain bogs, and stunning waterfalls — which now form Headwaters State Forest.
In addition to directing conservation projects to CMLC over the past decade, Merrill lent his time and expertise to the organization in even wider capacities, serving on its board of trustees twice — including as board president — totaling seven years and counting.
Merrill even puts his money where his mouth is. “I feel that when I'm sitting on the board of an organization, I shouldn't be enriched by that position,” he said in explanation of why he donates his listing fee to CMLC on transactions that he brokers.
Unfortunately, Merrill has detected a sharp decline in clients seeking conservation easements this year, and he does not believe it to be coincidence. The state's conservation tax credit expired at the end of 2013 as part of the General Assembly's comprehensive tax reform efforts.
“Because of the benefit to everybody, folks need to be encouraged to do an easement. The state tax credit was a huge incentive that has gone away,” he said.
Merrill noted that there was also uncertainty surrounding the federal income tax deduction for easements, dealing another blow to conservation incentives for landowners.
“We won't be able to conserve as much land, and it's to the detriment of all of us,” he said. “It really is. Everybody loses.”
Nevertheless, Merrill teems with pride for all that CMLC has accomplished — tickled that he has been able to help along the way. “People come (to CMLC) because we have a reputation for trying to do it the right way,” he said.
He credits the diverse and astute experience of the organization as a selling point to his clients pursuing conservation easements.
“We uphold the highest standards,” he said, pointing out that CMLC was the first land trust in the state to be accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. “We wanted to go down that path early to set an example for how a land trust protects and stewards land as effectively as possible.”
That includes not just the initial saving of land, but also the long-term assurance that the property's conservation values are guarded in perpetuity.
When accepting a conservation easement, the organization is legally bound to permanently uphold and defend those values. “And perpetuity is a helluva a long time,” Merrill said. “I'm glad I chose to protect my land with CMLC because I'm confident they will keep their promise to see it conserved long after I'm gone.”
Ironically, Merrill wasn't always part of the solution to preserving the natural heritage of our region. Prior to his involvement in land conservation, he owned a successful excavation business.
“I was very much in earnest a developer,” he confessed.
Among Merrill's former projects, the development of condos atop Jump Off Mountain earned him some ire from peers.
“Now keep in mind there had been a 15-story hotel on top of the mountain before,” he chuckled. “But now I am atoning for my sins of those years.”
“As a (real estate) agent, it's very satisfying to be able to take what I do for a living and apply it toward conservation,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's the most satisfying part of my career.”
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.