David Harper brushed the leaves and the bark of trees with his hand as he walked, talking about his nonprofit's takeover of the Keith Arboretum in rural Orange County.
The conversation trailed off as he spotted small changes in the landscape: bees buzzing in a blooming mimosa tree, tender bamboo shoots peeking from the grass, a red-shouldered hawk's nest high in a tree.
"I hear them hunting in the morning," he said.
But neighbors are skeptical that the nonprofit Unique Places to Save, with its connections to a local business and a board filled with financial and real estate professionals, will protect the arboretum's thousands of unique trees.
The nonprofit and Pickoretum LLC paid $494,000 to buy the 22-acre Keith Arboretum and an adjacent forest from former owner Charles Keith in 2015. The nonprofit also owes $157,440 on debt from the C.R. Keith Arboretum Charitable Foundation, records show.
Keith had owned the property since 1963, adding over 4,000 different trees and plants to the private arboretum and making it a destination for education and research.
He expected his 2005 conservation easement with Orange County to protect the arboretum and its trees long after he was gone. A separate conservation easement with the Triangle Land Conservancy protects the 45-acre forest
But this year, Pickoretum LLC official Jeffrey Fisher proposed several changes to the easement that would add or expand buildings, allow beehives and sheep, pave roads, and remove, cut or manage the trees.
Fisher has since dropped his request and sold his share of Pickoretum to Unique Places to Save and its for-profit arm Unique Places LLC. Unique Places to Save, pending a board vote, will own the arboretum.
Neighbors, already worried by a deck built onto Keith's former house, now an AirBnB, and online postings about campsites, weddings and weekend stays, learned about the potential changes just before the Orange County commissioners were scheduled to vote on them.
On May 30, county staff brought over 100 people together with Harper and assistant director Christina Vad to get more information.
They're still worried about what the change in ownership could mean to their rural community just northwest of Chapel Hill. Using the arboretum in more commercial ways, even to support its mission, could violate the easement and pressure the owners of more than a dozen surrounding tracts to sell or develop their land, neighbor Susan Walser said.
Efland resident Brian Dobyns suggested county staff evaluate all of its easements during regular visits to see if they're strong enough.
"If somebody takes down a tree, and all you can say is you shouldn't have done that, then the easement really hasn't done its job," he said.
'Fall in love with trees'
Harper told the neighbors he was not a party to the proposed changes. The focus now is on conservation and education, he said.
Unique Places to Save is a 20 percent owner with Fisher and Erik Lensch in East West Organics, which owns Pickard's Mountain, Honeysuckle Tea House and the Looking Glass Cafe in Carrboro.
The nonprofit's share of profits have helped pay for projects like relocating the historic Hollow Rock Store on Erwin Road, working with the city of Mebane to create the Cates Farm Park and promoting New Hope Creek Corridor conservation efforts.
Harper said the arboretum's future is rooted in connecting people to the land.
"We want to figure out how this place can be designed and managed in a way that's consistent with easements, that is consistent with county ordinances," Harper said, "but also [so it will] be here generations from now, so that my grandkids or your grandkids can come out there and, to put it bluntly, fall in love with trees.”
That includes providing visitors with an app for self-guided tours, and the “Hickory Project,” to let children climb and explore the life of a hickory tree using virtual reality before identifying the real thing in the field.
In the future, they would like to restore the area around the Morgan Creek headwaters, which is on the site and feeds into University Lake in Carrboro, he said.
Finding the money
The challenge is money, Harper said. While Keith managed for years with a part-time gardener and a $50,000 annual budget, he knew that wasn't enough. Mark Weathington, assistant director and curator of collections at the JC Raulston Arboretum, has estimated that proper care for the arboretum would require an endowment of at least $2 million.
That could provide them with a minimum annual budget of $100,000 to also hire groundskeepers and an experienced land steward, Harper said. The alternatives are fund-raising campaigns and generating income from the property, he said.
Community and local partnerships, such as encouraging neighbors to buy a membership and working with Carolina Butterfly Society and Durham-based Bee Downtown, also are key, he said.
Bee Downtown keeps roughly 20 hives at the arboretum, founder Leigh-Kathryn Bonner said. It's mutually beneficial, enhancing the arboretum's ecosystem and giving Bee Downtown a healthy apiary free of chemicals to produce honey and bees for other hives, she said.
"Across the country, people have been burning beehives and spraying chemicals in them just for the fun of it, so it's important for beekeepers to have safe places to keep their hives so that they stay healthy and strong," Bonner said. "We've been very fortunate to have them out at the arboretum."
Easement sets limits
Keith Arboretum is among more than 2,300 acres of forest and farmland — roughly 2 percent of Orange County's land — that have been preserved since 2001. Conservation lands remain private, but their owners agree to limit future development.
While each easement is different, most in Orange County cover agricultural land and working farms and are written to give landowners flexibility as long as the conservation values are protected, said David Stancil, director of the Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks and Recreation..
"As farmers and landowners explore new options through agritourism, it is possible we may begin running into questions of interpretations on what is and is not allowed within the easement — though in most cases agritourism is allowed," Stancil said.
The Keith Arboretum easement lets Unique Places improve the existing home and build fences, sheds and other accessory buildings in a four-acre tract surrounding the house. It also allows work on needed utilities, and the construction of unpaved trails, a 12-foot-wide driveway, and parking for 10 cars. Trees can be cut only under a county-approved forestry management plan.
Any income that the property generates must be used for its operation and maintenance.
Scientific, educational and recreational uses, such as camping, hiking and AirBnB leasing, are allowed, said Kim Livingston, county land conservation manager. They're still trying to decide if beekeeping is a commercial use, but weddings are not allowed, she said.
The county also is working with them to make sure the new deck meets county standards, she said. It was built without a permit, because the owners thought the land qualified for "bona fide farm" exemptions, she said.
Online references to Unique Places to Save and Keith Arboretum have been revised since the neighborhood meeting. The arboretum's ROMR page now prohibits campfires, though its website still has a wedding reservations form. Harper said that is being removed, and they will get more county input about the type of events could be allowed.
"The big arboretums that are backed by the big universities do all kinds of stuff that we would never think of doing here," he said. "We're not set up for big events. We're not set up for giant parties. It's just not the nature of this property; it's more intimate than that."
As Harper walked toward the arboretum's pond, ringed with water lilies, algae and the sonorous sound of frogs, he pointed out his favorite tree. It caught his eye during a 2016 visit, he said; “it looked like a Dr. Seuss tree.”
“The Canton water pine, a pine tree that likes water from the Canton region of China,” he said. “I just thought, now there’s something you don’t see every day. It had a very distinctive look to it.”
That's the wealth of Keith Arboretum, Harper said, that you can stand in one place and see 20 species that normally aren't together.
"Why come here if you're not going to learn about trees and plants?" Harper said. "That's the story here. You're here not for a pretty setting; you're here to learn about the living collection."