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Published Sat, Sep 07, 2013 06:01 AM
Modified Sat, Sep 07, 2013 06:03 AM

County contributes to Walnut Hill purchase

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- pseligson@newsobserver.com

Johnston County commissioners on Monday agreed to spend $231,000 to help complete the Walnut Hill Farm purchase.

Walnut Hill is a 479-acre farm that straddles the border of Wake and Johnston counties. The Triangle Land Conservancy is buying the land at 40 percent of the appraised value because its owners want the land to remain undeveloped and be opened to the public.

Most of the farm is in Wake County. Last month, Wake commissioners agreed to spend $1.6 million to buy the 409 acres on their side of the county line. Johnston’s money will help buy the remaining 70.3 acres here.

“It is just terribly exciting,” said Chad Jemison, executive director of the Triangle Land Conservancy. “We just think this will be a wonderful extension to the river walk property in the town of Clayton that will be a destination for people across the Triangle and for the people of Johnston County.”

Johnston commissioners voted 6-1 to spend the money, with Commissioner Ted Godwin voting against. He was concerned that it was a misuse of money.

“I find myself unwilling to part with county funds when we don’t have any ownership of the property,” Godwin said. The $231,000 will go to the Triangle Land Conservancy, which will own the land after buying it from the current owners, the Williamson family.

Godwin was concerned also about the location. Since it’s on the edge of the county and not centrally located, he doubted many Johnston County residents would visit the farm.

Godwin also didn’t buy the argument that buying the land was necessary to protect the Neuse River watershed.

“If we don’t spend the money, it’s still going to be there,” he said. “The watershed is still going to be there. The woods are still going to be there. Who’s going to develop the woods way down in here?”

Commissioner Tony Braswell, the board’s vice chairman, countered that it was the county’s responsibility to protect the watershed. Jemison added that Wake County is helping to protect Johnston County’s watershed by buying the other 409 acres, which feed into the Neuse River, so Johnston County should contribute too.

Commissioner Cookie Pope expressed concern about the price per acre and the loss of tax revenue. A similar conservation effort in Johnston was at a lower price per acre but didn’t include public access.

The money for the land won’t come from the county’s tax coffers. Instead, Johnston will take the $231,000 from its stormwater land-dedication fund. Some companies and individuals pay into the fund as they develop land. The Walnut Hill purchase will use about half of the fund, which was about $466,000.

The county’s contribution to the purchase is $3,300 per acre. The land is worth $17,000 an acre, according to an appraisal. Other groups are providing matching funds, bringing the total contribution per acre to about $20,000.

The land sales will close in September or October, Jemison said. Then the Triangle Land Conservancy will hold public discussions about how to add trails and other passive uses to the land. He said Walnut Hill should be open to the public in three to six years.

Capital plan update

Commissioners also approved a change to their 2013 Capital Improvements Plan, bumping a $1.5 million water project up to $4.7 million. But the change won’t lead to higher water rates.

The original project called for replacing the filter towers and rebuilding a filter group at the water-treatment plant. But as workers examined the plant closer, they found that chlorine gas had caused building erosion that needed to be repaired, said Chandra Coats, public utilities director.

Additionally, the plant has just three groups of filters. To make the building repairs, one group would have to be shut down, meaning the plant would not be able to produce all of the water the county needs. Typically in such cases, the county would buy water from another provider. But Coats said now is the time to go add a fourth filter group so the plant can have a back-up.

The county will use a low-interest loan from the state to fund the project, Coats said.

Other Business

Commissioners approved a contract for the county’s 911 communications. The contract is with CenturyLink, which will now host calls to 911 off-site and in the cloud.

This updates the department’s systems, which were almost 5 years old, and provides redundancy in case something goes wrong, said Jason Barbour, director of 911 communications.

The update will cost about $2,500 more a month, bringing the cost to about $54,000 monthly. The extra money will come from the 911 budget.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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