Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina received a grant of $1.2 million from North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund (CWMTF) to help fund the future Oak Hill Community Park and Forest project. To date, a total of $1.8 million has been raised toward the total project cost of $3.1 million.
Foothills Conservancy holds a purchase option on the 660-acre undeveloped property, located in the Oak Hill community, 10 minutes from downtown Morganton. The conservancy must secure the funding to acquire the property by the end of 2019. Once the property is acquired and protected with a state-held conservation easement, the conservancy will work with city, state and local partners to eventually offer public access in a park-like setting.
Its close proximity to Oak Hill Elementary School, Table Rock Middle School, Freedom High School, Western Piedmont Community College and the upcoming North Carolina School for Science and Math would allow the Oak Hill Community Park and Forest to serve as a hub for education and outdoor classrooms.
Public outdoor recreation is a priority of Foothills Conservancy, and the land trust is developing partnerships to plan and design trails on the property that could eventually be used for mountain biking and hiking. It is possible that the property could eventually connect to the City of Morganton Greenway and Fonta Flora State Trail.
“We are very excited about this grant from Clean Water,” said Foothills Conservancy Executive Director Andrew Kota.
The CWMTF Board of Trustees awarded more than $14 million in grants across North Carolina in mid-September.
According to Walter Clark, CWMTF’s executive director, “the Oak Hill Community Park and Forest project fits nicely with the Fund’s mission of protecting land with significant natural resources that is open for public use and enjoyment. The project will protect 17,700 linear feet of streams that serve as home to the Carolina Foothills Crawfish, which is considered significantly rare.”
Kota added: “Although the project scored well in Clean Water’s criteria because of its high conservation values, we attribute much of the success in receiving this grant to the outpouring of community support over the past several months.”
The conservancy received letters or resolutions of support from North Carolina House Representative Hugh Blackwell; Dr. David Moore of Warren Wilson College; Superintendent Larry Putman of Burke County Public Schools; Co-Director of N.C. Farm Link William Hamilton; the City of Morganton and Burke County. In addition, several individuals wrote letters to the editor of the Morganton News Herald to advocate for the Oak Hill Community Park and Forest project.
An online petition on the conservancy’s website has received 556 signatures and 111 positive comments in support of the project. White Blaze Productions created a promotional video that captured the vision for the property as a public park and the future opportunities for recreation and outdoor education. The video has been viewed more than 20,000 times.
“These examples of tangible support are part of the reason why we felt confident about our grant to CWMTF and why we remain optimistic in terms of raising the rest of the funding needed ($1.3 million) to acquire the land,” said Kota. “It is one thing to say that a project has community support, but to look through a list of names or read a local man’s personal account of enjoying his childhood on this property truly resonates with grantors.”
Pledges from private donors make up $600,000 of the funds raised to date. Combined with the recent $1.2 million grant, $1.3 million remains to fund the acquisition of the Oak Hill property.
“An acquisition of this magnitude is how this conservancy got its grassroots start in 1995, when a group of volunteers lobbied public and private funding for a $16 million project,” said Kota.“Today, those 19,000 acres are part of South Mountains State Park and Gamelands. We are confident that this community will continue to pull together to protect this last large, undeveloped tract of land in Oak Hill for everyone to enjoy, forever.”
Interested individuals are encouraged to visit foothillsconservancy.org/oakhillpark, call 828-437-9930, or visit the Foothills Conservancy office at 204 Avery Ave. in Morganton to make a tax deductible contribution to the Oak Hill Community Park and Forest acquisition.