Why save it? Just pave it – a conservation easement at risk in Morgan County
By Christine McCauley Watts, executive director of Madison-Morgan Conservancy
It sits on a little rise, Davis Crossroads does, and gives you a long view of one of Morgan County’s more bucolic landscapes. Davis descendants have farmed and cared for the land surrounding this crossroads for generations and in the last two decades have donated three conservation easements to permanently protect the scenic and agricultural conservation values found here.
This place may never look the same, so we drove out to take it all in. For months, we have been pouring over maps and researching historic homes and churches in the area, all in an effort to find an alternative route for the Georgia Transmission Corp.’s Facebook Transmission Line and 230/115 kV Substation project.
The utility corridor will be one of those huge ones: Giant substations, monopoles 80- to 120-feet tall carrying transmission lines across 6 miles in 500- to 750-foot spans from a substation north of I-20 to Facebook’s new ThumbsUp substation in Stanton Springs. No matter the route they take, the towering lines and related structures will plow through farmland, over creeks, through forests, and wind around historic homes and cemeteries at the historic Davis Crossroads. The big problem: 93 acres of permanently protected conservation land lay between the two substations, and GTC wants to plow right through and over it.
The conservation easements at the crossroads of Old Mill and Davis Academy roads protect the iconic Davis Cemetery, prime farmland, a circa 1900 farmhouse, and the scenic quality of the crossroads. The easements were donated by three different landowners whose families have owned land here for generations – charitable gifts held and defended by NRCS and a land trust, all in an effort to pass on to future generations the land, the sense of place, the wide-open spaces, the quality of life, and the history. We thought it was safe.
Morgan County is the only county of Georgia’s 159 to have its own conservancy. Incorporated in 2000 to protect farms, forests, and front porches for future generations, the Madison-Morgan Conservancy is an integral part of the culture of conservation enjoyed here by 18,000 residents. We’ve had a hand in the permanent protection of over 4,300 acres through the conservation easement process, safeguarding the past, present, and future. Or so we think.
You may know Morgan County for these idyllic crossroads, farms, and scenic drives; or Madison for its renowned historic district; or Rutledge for its artists and proximity to Hard Labor Creek State Park; or Bostwick for its annual Cotton Gin Festival and longest tractor parade on Earth; or Buckhead for its name, repeatedly solicited by the leadership of Atlanta’s trendy neighborhood; or maybe you hunt here or pass through on your way to see the Dawgs play. If you do know it, you love it, too.
The Conservancy understands that utility companies, like the rest of us, want the most bang for their buck. They are, therefore, inclined to locate their infrastructure on wide open, sparsely populated, and cheap land. Conservation land is cheap because the development potential has been removed to protect some other important use, drastically reducing its fair market value – in this case, a personal financial sacrifice and the epitome of an altruistic effort to protect private land for the public’s quality of life.
Shire, formerly known as Baxter, is here, in part, for that quality of life. And Facebook is coming. And we know progress comes at a cost. So, we have spent the last eighteen years being proactive, working in concert with developers, local governments, and private landowners to protect those things the people here respect and honor: Family histories, fertile farmland, beautiful historic homes, and the heritage tourism and agritourism industries that fuel our economy. This is what we consider a holistic approach to balanced growth, and it seems only right to demand the same level of consideration from those entities needing to use those cherished natural, agricultural, and/or historic resources.
This conservancy is not alone in this approach. The Land Trust Alliance, who works to “save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America,” is working on a higher level to amend the Natural Gas Act and other FERC-regulated processes to ensure resource protection, local economy preservation, and respect for private property rights during the permitting process.
So, as we await the federal changes needed to resolve these local issues, we will continue to pour over maps, recommend alternative routes, and provide as much assistance as possible to simply find another way. Hopefully consensus will eventually be found among landowners, the utilities, and the community at large.
Note to readers: In addition to serving as executive director of the Madison-Morgan Conservancy since 2003, Christine McCauley Watts has served as director of Buckhead Heritage Society and Chattahoochee Hill Country Conservatory.