Eagle Mill a step closer to protection

With a sizeable gift from the Friends of Jackson County, the 20-acre Eagle Mill Farm north of Ashland is within reach of a conservation easement that will protect it from development in perpetuity and keep it in use as an agricultural, educational and scenic treasure.

The Friends board voted this week to give $2,400 to the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy toward surveying and a riparian management plan for the vegetable and wine grape farm tucked between Bear Creek and the Bear Creek Greenway.

The gift, plus $9,000 donated from the community and an $11,200 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, will enable the conservancy to finish four years' work on conservation and agricultural preservation easements with Eagle Mill Farm, owned by Ron Roth and his wife, Kathleen MacMichael, former owners of Geppetto's Restaurant.

Polaris Land Surveying of Ashland also donated $7,000 in work.

The easement, the 42nd of its kind executed by the conservancy in the region, allows owners to preserve the land for future generations without the conservancy having to raise considerable funds to buy it, said Executive Director Diane Garcia. It also allows the conservancy to monitor terms of the easement through the years.

"We've very excited about it because it's close to town and is an amazingly beautiful buffer," said Garcia. "It will always be open space for agriculture. It's a huge gift to the community in perpetuity."

The land for 28 years has been a source of organic vegetables for local markets and restaurants, including Geppetto's. It grows wine grapes and a large pumpkin patch and, said Roth, serves in the Rogue Valley Farms to Schools project as a popular field trip destination for preschoolers, kindergartners and Head Start students.

Students engage in planting, farming and cooking projects on the site, while coho, trout and steelhead use its shaded stream areas for rest and spawning, he said.

"It's vital to the local community to protect it from development," said Roth. "There are plenty of places for sale where rich people can build a big house, but I'd rather welcome people to Eagle Mill Farm and have a riparian zone and pumpkin patch.

"It's a much better legacy for me to leave, to be remembered for environmental protection and local agriculture."

Conservancy Conservation Coordinator Dominic DiPaolo said the parcel is important for fish and stream health in a heavily urbanized locale.

"Ron is doing a good thing to put it out of development," DiPaolo said.

The property is one of the oldest farms on Bear Creek, dating back to the 1880s. It was owned by the Alvis McNabb family after 1940. Roth and MacMichael bought it in 1982. It's owned by an LLC of eight members.

"This property is one of the most important pieces of land we can protect," said Garcia. "It's the entryway to town. It's not easy to find 20 acres of land so close in, with landowners whose vision is to see it permanently protected. Plus, the bike path runs along two sides, so we're also saving the rural view forever."

Brent Thompson of Friends of Jackson County said the group unanimously backed the donation because "we knew it was a complicated ownership " and the community should support this and not have it drag out for years.

"It's very community-minded."

To qualify for a conservation easement, land must meet several federal guidelines for benefit to the public, including education, recreation and scenic value.

The land is zoned exclusive farm use and, through the easements, will not qualify for any significant new tax breaks, said Garcia.

"They donated the easement," she said, "purely out of altruistic reasons and because they love this property."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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