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Forest-to-farmland conversion sparks controversy in Pamlico County

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MERRITT, N.C. -

In Pamlico County, controversy continues surrounding a large piece of forested land that's being converted into farmland.

The property owners of the Atlas Tract, a 4,600 acre piece of land near Merritt, have been clearing the land since August, but people who live in the area are worried the development could cause flood problems.

The property contains wetlands, and people like Angie Propst of Oriental are concerned if the landowner drains it, it could cause worse flooding during rain storms.

"Wetlands acts like a sponge. It's holding the water. If it's not holding it and absorbing it, then it's going to run off. It's going to go into our creeks and into our water," said Propst.

But a spokesman for the landowner, Spring Creek Farms, LLC, says there are no plans to drain the wetlands. Abel Harmon is a consultant for the company, which is based in Illinois.

"They're not going to try to do anything that wouldn't be good for agriculture," said Harmon.

Harmon says the company either has or is in the process of getting all the required permits. The company is deciding how much of the land to develop, but it is considering developing half of it into farmland, he said.

"They're not some monster corporation that doesn't have a heart and is not sympathizing with locals. They're just regular folks like the rest of us. And they're trying to do what's best for the land and the local people," said Harmon.

Harmon says the project helps the economy, creating up to 26 jobs like loggers, excavators, surveyors, and equipment operators. He says the farm itself will employ five or six people.

"They're spending millions and millions of dollars, and they're hiring only local and eastern North Carolina people to do this work," he said.

But Propst and Pamlico County commissioners aren't buying it. They've asked the Army Corps of Engineers to further investigate the property.

"This is a natural resource for the entire state and the entire country," said Propst. "It affects everyone who benefits from the Neuse River, the Pamlico River, and the Pamlico Sound."

Harmon insists the company has done nothing illegal. He expects the development to be finished in up to two years. The farmland could be used for corn, wheat, cucumbers, or whatever crop the company wishes to harvest, he said.

The Atlas Tract is mostly contained within triangle-shaped area created by Florence Road, Trent Road, and Straight Road, said Pamlico County manager Tim Buck.

Construction crews say once they cut the trees down, they're planning to take most of them to a mill in Plymouth, where they will be processed into plywood and other materials.

Harmon says there's a growing trend of Midwestern companies buying forested land in the southeast.

He says last year's drought wiped out many crops in Illinois, so agribusinesses are buying land in North Carolina and other southern states to diversify their business.

Another Illinois agribusiness that bought forested land in North Carolina is also sparking controversy. Walker AG, based in Danville, Illinois, is parent company of the buyer of the 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones County.

Environmentalists and other groups have spoken against the purchase of the land from North Carolina State University over fears the company, Hofmann Forest, LLC, will develop the land.

A protest of the sale of Hofmann Forest will be held Friday at 12 PM at NCSU's campus, said Ron Sutherland, a conservation scientist at Wildlands Network.

In Pamlico County, controversy continues surrounding a large piece of forested land that's being converted into farm land.

The property owners of the Atlas Tract, a 4,600 acre piece of land near Merritt, have been clearing the land since August, but people who live in the area are worried the development could cause flood problems.

The property contains wetlands, and people like Angie Propst of Oriental are concerned if the landowner drains it, it could cause worse flooding during rain storms.

"Wetlands acts like a sponge. It's holding the water. If it's not holding it and absorbing it, then it's going to run off. It's going to go into our creeks and into our water," said Propst.

But a spokesman for the landowner, Spring Creek Farms, LLC, says there are no plans to drain the wetlands. Abel Harmon is a consultant for the company, which is based in Illinois.

 "They're not going to try to do anything that wouldn't be good for agriculture," said Harmon.

Harmon says the company either has or is in the process of getting all the required permits to develop the land.

"They're not some monster corporation that doesn't have a heard and is not sympathizing with locals. They're just regular folks like the rest of us. And they're trying to do what's best for the land and the local people," said Harmon.

Harmon says the project helps the economy, creating up to 26 jobs like loggers, excavators, surveyors, and equipment operators. He says the farm itself will employ five or six people.

"They're spending millions and millions of dollars, and they're hiring only local and eastern North Carolina people to do this work," he said.

But Propst and Pamlico County commissioners aren't buying it. They've asked the Army Corps of Engineers to further investigate the property.

"This is a natural resource for the entire state," said Propst.

Harmon insists the company has done nothing illegal. He expects the development to be finished in up to two years.

Construction crews say once they cut the trees down, they're planning to take most of them to a mill in Plymouth, where they will be processed into plywood and other materials.

Harmon says there's a growing trend of Midwestern companies buying forested land in the southeast.

He says last year's drought wipe out many crops in Illinois, so agribusinesses are buying land here to diversify their business.

Another Illinois agribusiness is in the process of developing forested land in eastern North Carolina into farmland. Walker AG, based in Danville, Illinois, is the buyer for the 79,000 acre Hofmann Forest in Onslow and Jones Counties.

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