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Cornelius News

Growth vs. farms: Can the Alexander Farm be saved?


By Dave Vieser. The fate of the 54-acre Alexander Farm was top of mind for 75 people at Business Today’s Newsmakers Breakfast in may titled, “Growth & Infrastructure, What’s Next?” Even before the audience-driven Q&A session began, both Charles Knox, a developer and real estate broker who founded Huntersville-based The Knox Group, and Zack Wyatt, a Cornelius resident who is founder of Carolina Farm Trust, touched on the farm’s future.

“They are asking $18 million, a healthy sum for that property, which I think is a bit out of line,” Knox said. “Ultimately I believe the commercial real estate market will determine what a fair selling price will be.” On a per-acre basis, the owners are asking about what an Arizona developer paid for the old Cook Farm south of Westmoreland along Hwy 21. That project, called Augustalee, tanked during the Great Recession.

The Alexander property was listed last December. Town Planning Director Wayne Herron says he has had no development inquiries. With no developers in sight, Wyatt says he has not given up on keeping the property as a farm.

“We all drive by that site every day and so do dozens of school buses filled with our young people. How great it would be if we could preserve at least some of it, and make it into a demonstration farm. It’s the perfect size.”

 “We all drive by that site every day and so do dozens of school buses filled with our young people. How great it would be if we could preserve at least some of it, and make it into a demonstration farm. It’s the perfect size.”

– Zack Wyatt, Carolina Farm Trust

There is some precedent for preserving farms in the state. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy recently protected 318 acres at the Reeves Farm in Madison County, which is located the exact same distance from Asheville as Cornelius is from Charlotte. The project, which took five years to complete, was funded through a combination of state and federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Programs, the state Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and a generous private donor.

Nevertheless, competing for well-located farmland is no easy task; most of it has been gobbled up by residential development in Cornelius, with infrastructure always a step behind.

The rate at which North Carolina farmland is disappearing is alarming. According to the 2012 Agriculture Census, nearly 100,000 acres of land on some 2,695 farms was lost between 2007 and 2012. (The next farm census will be in 2017).

The local food movement connects farms and nearby consumers. Benefits range from fresher and healthier food to the preservation of vistas and development that’s more focused on existing infrastructure.

Wyatt who is in IT sales, knows his way around agriculture. He grew up on a farm in Virginia and his wife manages the Davidson Farmers Market. He founded the Carolina Farm Trust aiming to protect farmland and nurture the local foods movement. “We want to compete with developers for land, buy it, and lease it back to the farming community, to cover the taxes,” he said.

Several educators in the audience concurred with Wyatt’s sentiments, noting that students learn more in a real-life environment rather than just the textbook in a classroom.

When the Alexander property was first listed in December of last year, a preliminary site plan filed with the town included three retail outparcels on the 700-foot stretch facing Catawba Avenue occupying 16,000 square feet; a 56,000 square feet neighborhood retail center east of that, then 50,000 square feet for offices. Townhome housing units were also included in the plan, with lot widths ranging in size from 25 to 38 feet.

Local residents and officials immediately expressed concern about the added traffic any type of commercial development would generate. Furthermore, any developer would have to factor in road work anticipated in that area during the next several years, including the rebuilding of the Westmoreland/Catawba intersection and a possible new Exit 27 on I-77.

For now, all eyes will be on the vagaries of the real estate market and whether any developer is willing to shell out $18 million for the site.

The Presenting Sponsor for the Newsmakers Breakfast was Duke Energy, while Coffee Sponsors were Davidson Wealth Management and KS Audio Video.