History & Accomplishments

Hundred Acre Farm, courtesy Christine McCauley

After 15 Years, A Retrospective

Fifteen years ago, a young lady full of optimism and determination changed the face of Morgan County. Katie Vason persuaded her father Wayne to help her start a local conservancy to address conservation issues in her favorite place, Morgan County. Madison was Wayne’s hometown and a place Katie loved to visit on the weekends (she still loves to visit from her home in New York), and they both wanted to retain the qualities that made Madison and Morgan County such a unique place.

Wayne didn’t waste any time, and shortly after Katie’s plea for help, he convened eight Morgan County landowners in delicate antique chairs around a period southern dining room table in a dimly lit room at Jane Symmes’ c. 1820 Cedar Lane Farm. Only good things come from that dining room.

Whitey Hunt, Mary McCauley, Jack Miles, Adelaide Ponder, Jane Symmes, Robert Trulock, Ellen Warren, and Wayne Vason discussed the past, present, and future of Morgan County, and came to the conclusion that farmland, natural resources, and historic structures should be an integral part of the area’s development, not sacrificed in the face of that development. They closed their meeting with a tour of Jane’s gardens and then supper (setting the stage for the next decade), and the Conservancy was born.

Whitey Hunt, the first to be elected President, said in 2001, “We are blessed with a distinctive quality of life in Morgan County. The rich history and small town charm of Madison, Rutledge, Bostwick, and Buckhead and other communities and the rolling farmland of Morgan County are unique treasures. However, the unchecked urban sprawl of Metropolitan Atlanta threatens rapid change and unbridled growth. The many recent zoning issues in Madison and Morgan County reflect an on-going struggle between the public interest and individual property rights.”

Striking a balance between public interest and individual property rights is just what the Conservancy has been trying to do for the last fifteen years. How do you protect those critical natural, agricultural, and historic resources when we as private landowners have the right to do with them pretty much as we please? The answer is education and tools. Knowing the value of your resources and understanding your land use options (and having multiple options) is key to retaining the critical resources that are important to the public at large. We’re talking clean water, beautiful vistas, productive farmland, and all those old structures that link us to our past and remind us of our heritage.

So we embarked on a series of educational forums and asked the experts to help us: the American Farmland Trust, Georgia Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, and Nature Conservancy were among the first to come to Morgan County to give us the facts and teach us about the tools. Today, after 50+ educational forums, we are well informed about conservation and development issues. We are successfully using the tools, and our landscapes show it.

One of those tools is the conservation easement. As you know, Morgan County is now known to have a relatively significant number of acres permanently protected by the donation of conservation easements by private landowners (2,550 to date), reflecting the Conservancy’s success in promoting a tool that balances public and private interests. Our efforts to permanently protect land are paired with efforts to support farmers so they can retain their land in production – a kind of temporary land protection – and an effort to assist landowners in their own conservation goals, whether it be listing on the National Register of Historic Places, or Centennial Farm designation, or rehabilitation of their historic homestead, or development review. And that’s all working, too.

In the last fifteen years, we’ve come a long way. But we have a long way to go, too. Thanks to that leadership shown by the young Katie Vason and her parents, and by all the others who have come along since to guide this grand experiment, the Conservancy is agile, strong, and growing.

Accomplishments

Our holistic approach to land conservation is key to a landscape scale conservation effort. Both permanent and temporary methods of land conservation are essential to a successful effort, and the Conservancy’s approach includes:

Conservation Easements – permanently protect the conservation value of land

  • Over 2,550 acres protected through voluntarily donated conservation easements by private landowners in Morgan County (more acreage protected in surrounding counties)

Land Use Planning – harness development pressure to include smart growth principles in an effort to develop near infrastructure (roads, schools, sewer, fire/police protection) and protect the natural, agricultural, and historic resources that are the basis for our two largest industries of agriculture and tourism.

  • Reviewed nine development plans since 2006, reporting to the Morgan County Planning Commission on the pros and cons of each development plan
  • Were instrumental in securing four unanimous votes (County and Regional Commission) for disapproval of an application for a regional landfill within 1.5 miles of the City of Madison
  • Helped draft a transferable development rights (TDR) ordinance for the City of Madison, which was adopted in May 2014.

Keep Farmers Farming – create and enhance economic opportunities for farmers, through assistance in marketing local farm products. These activities help farmers resist the pressure to convert their farmland into a more intense use (residential, commercial, and/or industrial).

  • Created and published FARMeander – a map-based tour guide to local farms in and around Morgan County
  • Led an effort to bring a regional food hub to Morgan County.
  • Assisted Morgan County in applying for, and securing, a USDA grant for communities to scale up local and regional food systems and strengthen their economies. The county was awarded $80,000 in order to construct the farmers market portion of the Heritage Farm Market project – a public-private partnership between the County and Kelly Products Inc.
  • Farm To School: Helped launch a brand new Farm to School program in Morgan County. This partnership among the Madison-Morgan Conservancy, Kelly Products, Inc., and Morgan County Schools is designed to support nutrition and agriculture education and expand markets for local farmers.

Education – provide education to landowners and elected officials about the tools and benefits of protecting natural, agricultural, and historic resources

  • Held 50+ educational forums since 2001, resulting in a well informed public in and around Morgan County
  • Founded the annual, regional “Land Talks” in 2005 with Smart Growth Newton County and Friends of Walton County to provide a forum for the continued conversation about the future of this region of Georgia – a region rich in natural, agricultural, and historic resources and one facing increasing pressure from rapidly expanding Metropolitan Atlanta.
  • Host the longest running annual Conservation Easement Workshop in the state for landowners and professionals, attracting attendees from all over the Southeast
  • Held four Greenprint Rambles (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014). A community-wide effort requiring hundreds of volunteers, the Ramble has been extremely effective in conveying the importance and value of the area’s natural, agricultural, and historic resources.

Preservation – protect our special places – brick and mortar (and of course clapboard) projects

  • Nolan House listed on the National Register (2015).  On behalf of the landowner, the Conservancy staff prepared the nomination for the National Register of Historic Places for the Nolan House.  The house was listed in February 2015.
  • Malcom House (2014-2015).  Assisted the landowner in rehabilitating the historic homestead at Malcom’s Crossroads (provided advice on materials conservation methods, labor, tax credits, etc.).
  • Sugar Creek Baptist Church (2015).  Assisted the church in assessing the real state of the 100 year old sanctuary with assistance from Curtis Whitsel of Whitsel Construction.  Currently working with church on treatment, advocating for rehabilitation instead of demolition.
  • Walton Mill Tract (2013). Through the research of Conservancy intern Laura Duvekot, what is thought to be the first cotton mill in Georgia, along with the town of Antioch, was  studied and thoroughly documented. A report entitled “Walton Mill’s Hidden Past” outlines the 810-acre site’s history, significance, and preservation potential.
  • Wallace Grove School (2011). Partnered with Wallace Grove Baptist Church in the restoration of Morgan County’s last in situ African American school from the turn of the century.
  • 399 Jefferson Street (2010). Partnered with Morgan County Landmarks in the preservation of a Victorian Era cottage in downtown Madison. The cottage was purchased by the GA Trust for Historic Preservation through their Revolving Fund and sold with a façade easement to a preservation-minded buyer.
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