Bypass Could Present Lethal Threat to Horse Country
By Stephen Later
Special to The Pilot
The prospect of a U.S. 1 bypass around Southern Pines and Aberdeen constitutes a grave threat to one of the important natural, cultural and economic resources of our area: The Walthour-Moss Foundation.
The Foundation is a 4,200-acre nature preserve of statewide significance that lies between Southern Pines and Fort Bragg and thus in one potential route of a bypass highway.
Established in 1974 with an initial gift of 1,739 acres of longleaf pine forest and savanna, the Foundation has grown through donations of financial support and land from equestrians and nonequestrians.
The state of North Carolina designated the Foundation as a "Significant Natural Heritage Area." The bisection of the Foundation by a superhighway would decimate its fragile ecosystems and fundamentally alter the unique character of our community.
Horse Country exists today, quite simply, because of the Foundation. These lands and their miles of uninterrupted trails, open to walkers and riders daily from sunrise to sunset without charge, include one of the last great stands of longleaf pines and thus offer a rare opportunity to roam through the woods that once stretched along the eastern United States from Virginia to Texas.
These pines are home to rare and endangered animals and plants, from the red-cockaded woodpecker to the Boykin's lobelia. The Foundation also bears the imprint of those who lived on these lands in years past, from the arrowheads and paint rocks of hunters of centuries past to the turpentine trees whose hatchmarks are silent reminders of those who coaxed their livelihoods from these lands.
The construction of a freeway through the Foundation would destroy not only this unique natural habitat, a rare oasis in our urbanizing state, but also the quality of life that positions Southern Pines among the premier equestrian communities of the eastern United States. The vitality of Horse Country depends upon the integrity of the Foundation and the network of trails that wind through the hundreds of horse farms in this area.
The Foundation, which relies upon contributors and volunteers for support, is the principal attraction that draws most Horse Country residents to Moore County. The designation of a highway corridor through the Foundation would thus precipitate the loss of the people and farms that anchor this corner of the county.
The equestrian community is a significant contributor to the economic vigor of Moore County. A recent independent assessment concluded that the local horse industry generates $165.7 million in annual direct and indirect income in Moore County.
The Foundation attracts numerous visitors, from day trippers to seasonal residents, who support numerous Moore County enterprises. Horse Country farms pay well over $1 million in annual property taxes that, with few users of county services from schools to social services, yield a positive net return for county coffers.
It is time for our county and state to move past outdated planning methods that bisect the countryside with broad expanses of pavement and, rather, to reinvest in and revitalize our existing roads and commercial areas. The construction of bypass highways shifts development and economic activity from historic downtowns to big-box retailers and strip malls that spring up on these freeways.
NCDOT states that it is committed to "promoting environmental stewardship through maximizing use of existing facilities to the extent possible." The Foundation, ironically, includes a 180-acre wetland mitigation tract that NCDOT transferred to the Foundation in 2005 in light of its characterization of the Foundation as "good stewards of the environment."
The improvement of the current U.S. 1 facility through Southern Pines and Aberdeen, which experts estimate to be less expensive than construction of a bypass freeway, offers an opportunity to protect our environment while strengthening our local businesses and commercial districts, improving safety, and relieving congestion.
Southern Pines and Aberdeen are regional hubs for retail, employment and educational activities. Therefore, as our towns are the destination for much of the traffic on U.S. 1, the amount of through traffic that would be diverted from our local roads to a bypass is hardly sufficient to justify construction of a new highway and the potential destruction of one of the engines of our local economy. The traffic levels on U.S. Highway 1 in Vass and Pinebluff stand in stark contrast to those in Aberdeen and Southern Pines.
A bypass highway would also present challenges to Fort Bragg that could limit or preclude use of certain critical training areas. The residential developments that line Fort Bragg in other counties force the Army to limit use of certain training areas adjacent to these population centers. Fort Bragg is not a proponent of a U.S. Highway 1 bypass, yet a freeway near Fort Bragg could limit the wildlife management practices that ensure that these training areas remain open and usable by our soldiers.
The Foundation is a special place in our harried world, a place to ride or stroll, somewhere to enjoy the sounds of nature and the grandeur of the Carolina skies through the soaring longleaf pines.
Moore County faces a choice between preservation of a unique natural asset and the loss of our distinctive identity to miles of unnecessary steel, concrete and pavement.
Local attorney Stephen Later is vice chairman of The Walthour-Moss Foundation.
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