A bill filed in the N.C. General Assembly would remove land owned by Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney from the town of Spruce Pine in far Western North Carolina.
Senate Bill 122 would de-annex property that is currently within the municipal boundaries of the Mitchell County town.
Sweeney has been buying land in Mitchell County since around 2012, when prices from the Great Recession were depressed. He spent more than $10 million in the county, buying up thousands of acres of land across several deals.
Sweeney has conservation on the mind. The 50-year-old video game developer has become one of largest private landholders in the state over the past decade, with land holdings from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Sandhills.
But his land purchases rarely seem to be for investment or personal purposes. Sweeney’s a passionate nature lover. In the few days he is not working at Cary-based Epic Games, you’d most likely find him in the woods somewhere. And he has funneled his vast fortunes to preserve tens of thousands of acres of land from being developed.
The land that’s the subject of the bill once was known as the Old Spruce Pine Watershed. If the bill is approved, the land no longer would be subject to the town’s taxes after July 1.
The town added it to its boundaries when it was part of the town’s water supply. But it hasn’t been used for that purpose in years, and it wasn’t even within the town’s contiguous boundaries.
“It hasn’t provided water for the town in a long time,” Spruce Pine Town Manager Darlene Butler told The News & Observer. “I have been here for 23 years, and it wasn’t in use when I got here.”
Butler added that “it is not a place that the town would be interested in providing water and sewer services” in the future, so the de-annexation “served us well.”
The bill was filed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican who represents Mitchell County and several other Western North Carolina counties. Hise did not respond to The N&O’s request for comment.
Creating conservation corridors
Over the years, Sweeney has shown an interest in creating conservation corridors, or long connections of land that haven’t been crossed by roads or had any homes developed on them.
These undeveloped land bridges allow for rare species and plants to move freely about, something that could become more critical as rising temperatures cause more vulnerable animals and plants to move to higher elevations.
“The long-term conservation effort in this area is to create a permanent, high-elevation conservation corridor connecting the Appalachian Trail around Roan Mountain to the town of Spruce Pine and the North Toe River,” Tim Sweeney told The N&O in an email.
Sweeney said the land that’s the subject of the bill is in forestry use, and if conveyed to a conservancy, it would fall under their conservation tax status.
The first phase of that work has been completed by the state government and the Highlands Conservancy of North Carolina, which has conserved thousands of acres of land connecting the Appalachian Trail and Speer Tops mountain.
“The next phase, where my local land buying has been focused, is to connect Speer Tops over the mountain known as Big Bald, to (Spruce Pine) and the North Toe,” Sweeney added.
That would add 7,000 acres of land to the corridor, but Sweeney noted it’s “still a work in progress and hasn’t been conveyed for permanent conservation.”
“The project around Spruce Pine is probably around 15 years away from completion, given the amount of work that still needs to be done,” Sweeney said.
The part of the land that is affected by the proposed Senate bill isn’t technically in the corridor, though it is nearby. Sweeney said that particular property was part of a group of purchases that were necessary to preserve land around Beaver Creek, which runs through the corridor.
‘Hair on fire’ urgency
Jay Leutze, an advisor to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said the creation of these corridors in the Appalachian Mountains are going to be critical in the coming years.
“What we find, particularly in response to climate change, is that a lot of species are heading to a niche where they can succeed,” Leutze said in a telephone interview. “In our region, that means heading up slope. The Southern Appalachians are a critical climate corridor for plants and animals responding to climate change.”
These vulnerable species need the least amount of restrictions to move, Leutze said, because a road, for example, could completely stop the migration of a salamander.
Sweeney has been focused on creating these corridors since the end of the Great Recession. For a few years, after the economy collapsed, developers lost interest and Sweeney was able to buy large tracts of land.
These conservation effort have been most successful in other parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, specifically in land that Sweeney bought in Burke, Rutherford and McDowell counties in the Foothills. That includes the 7,000-acre Box Creek Wilderness that creates a corridor between the South Mountains and Pisgah National Forest.
“The effort (on those counties) is going much faster with 1,000-plus acres conveying per year on average,” he said in an email.
However, it is once again becoming competitive to buy large amounts of land. Western North Carolina is an attractive place for retirees from all over the country to relocate to, Leutze said, and the ability to work remotely could lead to even more human migration to the region.
“It’s hair on fire,” Leutze said of the need to save land now.
Complexities of land purchases
Because most of the land in the Appalachian Mountains was bought by people starting in the late 1700s, it can be tricky to save large amounts of land, Leutze said. Out West, it might take just three or four purchases to assemble thousands of acres of land. But because land holdings have been divided up by families in North Carolina for more than a hundred years, there could be dozens of property owners.
In Mitchell County alone, Sweeney bought land from more than a dozen families, with purchases ranging anywhere from 100 acres to 1,000 acres, according to deed records.
Sweeney said he is currently focused on three big conservation corridors in North Carolina: Spruce Pine, the Foothills and area around the Rocky River in Chatham County.
But he also has spent millions of dollars protecting areas outside of those corridors as well.
More than 400 acres of land he has preserved in Alamance County is now part of the recently opened Cane Creek Mountains Natural Area, a public park between Raleigh and Greensboro that has unusually high elevation for the Piedmont.
He also bought more than 1,000 acres of pine forest near Pinehurst in the Sandhills for preservation.
“Other efforts (including in the Sandhills) are generally aimed at protecting important stand-alone sites or assisting existing conservation projects by filling in gaps,” Sweeney said.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate