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The Walthour-Moss Foundation

By Jennifer M. Keeler

pine habitat credit Landon Russell

Photo credit: Landon Russel

When thinking of areas branded as “horse towns”, Lexington, Kentucky, Ocala, Florida, and Saratoga, New York may immediately come to mind; but undoubtedly worthy of similar mention is Southern Pines, North Carolina.  Located just over an hour southwest of the bustling Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area, the tranquility of Moore County has long been a haven for equestrians, even earning widespread recognition as “Horse Country.”

A cornerstone of Horse Country is The Walthour-Moss Foundation, a 4,052-acre nature preserve in the Sandhills of North Carolina that is home to large stands of longleaf pines and serves as a sanctuary for numerous endangered plants and wildlife.  The Foundation was established as a charitable trust by the late William O. “Pappy” Moss, a lifelong fox hunter, to ensure the preservation of the open land that he and his wife Virginia so treasured.  Long known for its equestrian use, the Foundation has also become a true environmental preserve and community asset, with land and trails open to the public year-round whether one is riding, carriage driving, walking, or running.  “We are very lucky to have access to over 4000 acres of open land,” explained Landon Russell, Executive Director of The Walthour-Moss Foundation.  “That’s why it’s so important to preserve its future.”

It’s a future which may be in jeopardy.  In 2004, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) adopted a concept called the Strategic Highway Corridor Plan (SHCP), with the objective to create a network of high-speed freeways through the state.   This plan contained five major road improvement projects in Moore County, including a reclassification of U.S. Route 1 to “freeway” status, which could result in construction of a “bypass” around downtown Southern Pines to handle high-speed traffic.  The NCDOT reported the change in U.S. 1’s status as necessary to ease congestion on area roads, although citizens believe most traffic is local which would not necessarily be relieved by a freeway or bypass.  Possible routes for the bypass would inevitably cut a wide swath through area farms and Foundation land.

The NCDOT insists there is no actual plan to route the $150-million bypass through Horse Country, but citizens fear that the state department will ultimately act anyway.  Neither the Foundation’s importance to the community, its status as a non-profit organization, nor the probable crushing blow to local neighborhoods and businesses can protect land seizure by the government under “eminent domain,” which allows property to be taken for government use or delegated to third parties and put to public or civic use, or for economic development.  The Foundation lands are not currently under conservation easements or other government protection. “But even these measures offer no protection against condemnation by NCDOT,” explained Russell.  “We would like to think that action such as the establishment of the Foundation by the Mosses would protect the land forever, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

If the U.S. 1 bypass project were to come to fruition, Horse Country and Foundation land would be in the center of the bulls-eye.  “If you were to lop off just a part of the Foundation land, or even if the bypass missed our land completely, it would still devastate the neighboring Horse Country land,” noted Russell.

Walthour Moss logoHorse enthusiasts and downtown Southern Pines merchants, who believe the proposed bypass would devastate their businesses, have rallied together in opposition to the plan.  On December 6, 2011, the Moore County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a strongly-worded resolution opposing any Comprehensive Transportation Plan that would route any portion of the future U.S. 1 corridor through Horse Country, and to petition for a reclassification of the “freeway” status imposed upon U.S. 1 by the NCDOT’s Strategic Highway Corridor Plan.  Within the next several days, the four municipalities closest to U.S. 1 also passed similar resolutions.

An impressive mobilization of Southern Pines equestrians and other residents demonstrates how awareness and active involvement in community planning issues is vital to conservation of land.  But the issue is far from over.  Local citizens must work together to find long-term solutions to traffic issues and continue to fight for preservation of the land that could be disrupted by the proposed freeway bypass.  “The decisions being made now are going to dramatically affect the future of our towns and everyone who lives here,” resident Alison McCormack told Southern Pines’ newspaper, The Pilot.  “Once done, the damage cannot be undone.  We’ll have to live with it forever.  Forever is a very long time.”