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Communique: Coastal Land Trust Celebrates 25 Years (And 100 Square Miles)

Michael Murchison & Camilla Herlevich

Not just one party--the Coastal Land Trust is throwing 2 parties for its 25th anniversary: Saturday, 9/23 at Poplar Grove & Saturday, 9/30 at Tryon Palace. After saving 100 square miles of land in North Carolina from development (so far), co-founders Camilla Herlevich & Michael Murchison say there's a lot to celebrate. 

At Poplar Grove on 9/23, the celebration includes lawn games, food from Milner's Cafe, Folkstone Stringband, and hayrides. At Tryon Palace in New Bern on 9/30, Hot Buttered Grits provides the music and food is provided by The Flame. Camilla and Michael say there'll be a touch of magic at both parties-and they'll talk about "Site X." Listen above or read our extended conversation below. Contact Stephanie Borrett with questions at 910-790-4524 or by email.

"A Magical Evening" with the Coastal Land Trust. Saturday, 9/23, 4:00-7:00 at Poplar Grove and Saturday, 9/30 5:00-8:00 at Tryon Palace in New Bern

Gina: What is the Coastal Land Trust?

Camilla: The Coastal Land Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization. We focus solely on saving lands in the coastal plain of North Carolina. We have been very successful over the last 25 years in working with private landowners and partners like local governments and state governments to set aside some of the most significant forests, barrier islands, nature parks, wildlife areas, and places where people can come out and enjoy nature.

Gina: Where did you get this idea 25 years ago to do this?

Camilla: The idea of Land Trusts and the model for Land Trusts had actually been around since the 1950s. It was pioneered by an international organization called The Nature Conservancy. When we started the Coastal Land Trust about 25 years ago, there actually were several other Land Trusts in the state of North Carolina that were being organized at the same time. So it was part of a statewide effort to try to protect more lands in more communities all over the United States of America.

Gina: What drew you to this project, Camilla?

Camilla: I had worked for that big international organization for about 10 years and came back to Wilmington, which is my hometown, and realized that I could do something like that here to save some of the lands that were important to me as a child growing up. That I could take those same techniques and apply them here.

Gina: Michael, what drew you to the project?

Michael: I am an attorney and I had worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington and I had a longstanding interest in environmental conservation and preservation. But the truth of the matter is I was drawn to it because Camilla invited me- and two others. We were very fortunate having been invited to participate in the Coastal Land Trust. It was her vision and her energy that brought it to fruition.

Gina: I can't imagine that you all are popular with any political party.

Camilla: We make no enemies because we are not an advocacy organization. We do not oppose development. We do not take positions on regulatory matters or anything along those lines, or planning issues. What we do is work with willing landowners who want to work with us and who want a conservation option for their property. We actually buy land or we help landowners take advantage of tax incentives to preserve land. So there really isn't an antagonistic relationship between any political party or any government agency and the idea of private land conservation as carried out by Land Trusts.

Credit NC Coastal Land Trust
Latham-Whitehurst Nature Park

Gina: So someone can sell their land to you or donate their land to you?

Camilla: That's right.

Gina: How do you decide if you want to pay for it? What kind of guidelines do you follow in purchasing land?

Camilla: Our guidelines have changed over the years. For the first five or six years most of the lands that we were able to protect were either donated to us by landowners, who were then be able to claim a charitable contribution for making the donation of property, or the landowners kept the property and donated the development rights to us. That's called a Conservation Easement. And the beauty of that concept is that it allows the private landowner to give up the development rights and receive a tax deduction for the value of those rights that have been given up. Then in 1995 or so, there was a state law that created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. That law created a fund that eventually grew to be about $100 million a year, which Land Trusts like ours could apply to for highly ranking projects that included land on rivers and streams that protected clean water. It was a competitive process and the projects that would rise to the top and would get funding would be those that would be on very special pristine waterways or that had very special forests that were worthy of being protection. We adopted the criteria of the state agency which created the fund and went out and looked at some of our priority waterways- the Cape Fear River, the Neuse River- and found willing landowners who were interested in taking advantage of that program.

Michael: The area that we live in- the coastal plain of North Carolina- is among the most biologically diverse lands in the United States. It's the northern boundary of a lot of plant and animal species and the southern boundary of a lot of other plant and animal species. So it has a rich, biodiverse area which makes the cause of conserving those properties all the more imperative.

Gina: How much of your land is donated to you?

Camilla: In the early days, most of the land that was protected by the Coastal Land Trust was donated to us. Unfortunately, there was a Conservation Tax Credit like the Historic Preservation Tax Credit right here in North Carolina that added on to the federal tax deduction for conservation contributions. And I am afraid to say that we have only had one donated conservation easement in the two years since that tax credit was eliminated.

Michael: It was eliminated by the General Assembly.

Gina: Do you have to pay taxes on the land that you own?

Camilla: No. The land that is owned by the Coastal Land Trust is exempt from taxation. However, if a private landowner places a conservation easement on the property, the land does not come off of the tax rolls but they may apply for a reduction in value because those development rights have been given up.

Gina: And that is permanent?

Camilla: Yes.

Michael: And just as the conservation easement is supposed to be in perpetuity, the obligation to monitor compliance with that easement is also in perpetuity. So the organization has to continue to exist.

Gina: Do you have boundaries within which you work?

Camilla: Yes. The Coastal Land Trust's service area is the coastal plain of North Carolina. We include 31 counties in that area. We are the only one that covers a third of the state. There are probably 20 in the mountains and then there are five or six in the Piedmont. We cover the whole coastal plain of North Carolina. So we have a huge, huge service area.

Michael: One of the challenges that our organization is going to face in the future is that with the loss of the Conservation Tax Credit, the loss of public funding for conservation, and the increased price of property, we're going to need alternative funding sources. A lot of the funding that we anticipate needing to conserve property in the future is going to come from private sources unless we have a sea change in the view of the General Assembly with respect to funding conservation.

Gina: There's all kinds of money out there, you just have to get it, right?

Camilla: There's there's a lot of well surely, there's certainly a lot of wealth but there is not as much- the nice thing about government Conservation Trust Funds is that they are set up for conservation purposes. Individuals, corporations, and institutions have a lot of wealth to be sure but they're not all set up to help conservation. So it is a whole different way of finding money. It is out there and we're going to have to get better at it. 


Gina: But right now is a time for celebration. Twenty-five years. You’re having two events to celebrate?

Camilla: That's right. We have a great core group of supporters here in Wilmington but we also have a satellite office in Newbern and a satellite office in Elizabeth City. So we are celebrating in two places in back to back receptions. The one here in Wilmington at Poplar Grove is September 23rd from four to seven. The one in Newburn- and you come to both- is September 30th from five to eight at Tryon Palace. You can find out more about that by going on our website, CoastalLandTrust.org and clicking the events page. 

There certainly will be food and drink and who knows, there might even be some sparklers and some other things. But basically it's going to be a lot of camaraderie. Hopefully some storytelling about some of the deals that got done, some of the deals that got away, and some of the deals that we're going after again. We have borrowed money for the first time our history for the most exciting project, in my opinion, that we've ever tackled and that is a place called Site X which is up in Bertie County across from Eatontown and it is not only an extraordinary natural area that's going to become part of the state nature preserve system but it's also a place that may hold clues to the lost colony. They have found pottery there that seems to have come from the people who were at the original Lost Colony, they just don't know how it got there.
So they call it Site X for a reason there's a lot of really exciting stories and mysteries surrounding that so there probably will be some storytelling and we're just going to have a wonderful time.


Gina: How do people volunteer with this organization?

Camilla: From the very beginning have had an extraordinary group of board of directors. We try to recruit people who have skills in the fields that are needed for our organization to be successful. So we'll have real estate developers, we will have attorneys, we will have biologists, will have educators, folks who understand marketing and public relations and fundraising. We have volunteers on various committees- fundraising committees, land committees, and development and finance committees. We usually have accountants on our board as well. And then we have folks who like to come out and help at our events.

Michael: Those who have had the opportunity to volunteer and contribute to the organization as board members or otherwise have greatly enjoyed that and taken great pleasure in that opportunity and have been loyal to the organization. I think it's a testament to the organization's success that a number of board members like myself and others have stayed with the organization and remain contributors to the organization and greatly appreciated the relationship. 

Transcription assistance from PopUpArchive and Production Assistant Lindsay Wright