June 3, 2004


Local land trust celebrating anniversary of farm auction

Five years ago, Yellow Springers rose to what seemed an almost impossible challenge: in less than six weeks, they raised more than a million dollars to preserve Whitehall Farm, keeping the village’s north edge forever green.

In honor of that achievement, the Tecumseh Land Trust (TLT) is throwing a party at Whitehall Farm this weekend.

The fifth-anniversary celebration of the preservation of Whitehall Farm will take place on Sunday, June 6, at 2 p.m., with TLT’s annual meeting. Beginning at 3, participants may take tours of the farm, eat ice cream and listen to live music. The event is free and open to everyone.

Of the many lessons learned from the Whitehall campaign, perhaps the most important is how effective a small town can be when everyone comes together, Krista Magaw, the TLT executive director, said in an interview this week.

“It’s important to realize how powerful we can be when we set our minds to something,” Magaw said. “We are all still amazed that it worked.”

To Al Denman, who in 1999 was co-chair of the Farmland Preservation Task Force, which oversaw the successful farm purchase, Whitehall was “a singular event from a number of perspectives.”

“It established that the village could get together on an important issue with great concentration and not much dissent and bring about a successful outcome,” Denman said.

Anticipating that the 940-acre historic farm, which provides a pastoral border for Yellow Spring’s northwest boundary, would soon be sold by family members, the Farmland Preservation Task Force had been working for two years to bring together both public and private parties in an effort to preserve the land from development, Denman said. But everyone was caught off guard in December 1998, when family members of Martha Rankin, Whitehall’s last owner, announced that they would sell the farm at an auction in February 1999.

That announcement produced a flurry of activity and focused many villagers’ attention as people attempted to raise $1.3 million, the amount needed to purchase easements on the property. While TLT and the Farmland Preservation Task Force looked for an “angel,” a wealthy individual who would purchase the land in order to keep it green, Yellow Springs residents held garage sales and fundraising concerts and dug deeply into their own pockets in an attempt to raise the money.

In a last-minute, heart-stopping outcome to the auction held at the Holiday Inn in Springfield on Feb. 24, 1999, everything worked. The “angels” did appear, in the unexpected form of Sharen and David Neuhardt, who live in the Whitehall mansion, but who had said they did not have the means to purchase the entire farm. But with the $1.2 million raised by villagers and the TLT, the Neuhardts fought back others seeking to buy the land.

“It was extraordinarily difficult for one purchaser to outbid a sizeable number of small parcels,” said Denman. “It worked out exactly as the task force had hoped.” That outcome resulted from the task force’s strategy of bringing together public and private interests, said Denman, who added that “a good part of it was luck.”

Had Whitehall Farm been purchased by developers, Yellow Springs would probably look very different now, said Denman, who speculated that housing and business development might have doubled Yellow Springs’ size and shifted shopping focus away from downtown Yellow Springs toward Springfield.

“It would have made for a significant change in the basic culture of Yellow Springs,” he said.

As well as preserving Yellow Springs as a small, bucolic town, the Whitehall success also helped establish the credibility of TLT and lead it in a new direction, said Julia Cady, a former TLT board member who was also a member of the Farmland Preservation Task Force.

“It’s not a stretch to say that our experience with Whitehall led to new thinking down the road at the same time as new resources became available,” she said.

Before Whitehall, TLT focused on preserving farms around Yellow Springs. After the event, the group set its sights beyond the immediate area to preserve not only farms, but blocks of farmland, in Greene and Clark counties, Magaw said.

“It’s important to preserve farms in clusters so that it remains viable to farm,” she said.

Along with that change in focus came a new funding source, the state of Ohio, which in 2000 began Clean Ohio, a program that offers to buy easements for land-owners who wish to preserve their land. Farms awarded the easements must meet certain criteria, including good soil quality and location in an area that is experiencing intermediate pressure for development, Magaw said.

In the past two years TLT has focused on procuring easements for Clark and Greene county farms through Clean Ohio, and has had considerable success, according to Magaw. The land trust now holds easements on 6,700 acres in the two counties, she said, while before Whitehall, the group oversaw less than 2,000 acres of farmland. In addition, the group continues to work with individual landowners who want to preserve their property through easements donated to the group, which offers the individual a tax benefit.

Beginning with Whitehall, TLT assumed a place at the forefront of land trust organizations in Ohio, according to Denman.

“Whitehall established that the Tecumseh Land Trust is an important force in the state for preserving farmland,” he said. “State officials and other land trusts look to it for leadership.”

In addition, TLT has more than doubled its membership in the past five years, to 500 members. According to Cady, these advances can be linked to the leadership and energies of Magaw, who was hired as the group’s first executive director two years ago after the formerly all-volunteer group realized it needed a full-time director and mounted a successful fundraising campaign in order to hire one.

Recently, the organization expanded again when it hired Kate Bush as its education fellow. The position, which was funded by a grant from the Turner Foundation in Springfield, allows the land trust to focus more on educating the public, including young people, about the need for farmland preservation, said Bush, who was raised on a farm near Beavercreek.

“Now kids growing up, all they see is subdivisions,” Bush said. “We want to open their eyes to other uses of land.”

While the Tecumseh Land Trust has set aside Sunday to celebrate its successes, the group has no plans to rest on its laurels. Indeed, its goals are ambitious, including the preservation of 50,000 acres of farmland in Greene and Clark counties in the next 10 years.