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Community Spirit - Saving an Historic Farm - Tractor Supply Co.
Historic farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio

Community Spirit - Saving an Historic Farm

By David Frey

Photography by Robert Hock

When Krista Magaw looks out her office window at the Tecumseh Land Trust headquarters, she gazes out across the fields of Whitehall Farm.

The historic farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio was nearly developed, but thanks to the land trust, a coalition of local residents and a couple of committed landowners, the 940-acre farm has been preserved forever as open space and farmland.

It wasn’t Tecumseh Land Trust’s first success, but it was its biggest, and it set the stage for what has grown to be 25,000 acres of land it has protected from development in Green and Clark counties.

“If you don’t preserve enough land, you’re going to lose your agriculture industry,” says Magaw, executive director of the Tecumseh Land Trust.

Founded in 1990, it was the first accredited land trust in Ohio. The trust was a good fit in an area that is home to Antioch College — with its environmentalist bent — and the birthplace of 4-H, with its roots in agricultural heritage.

The Village of Yellow Springs had long envisioned a greenbelt to protect it from sprawl. But that greenbelt was threatened in 1999 when the historic Whitehall Farm went up for auction. The land trust had already established several nearby conservation easements, but protecting the Whitehall Farm from development was a daunting challenge. With just six weeks’ notice, the massive farm would be auctioned off. In a system called the Iowa method, auctioneers would divide the farm into 34 parcels and sort through the bids to secure the best deal for the landowners.

The news shattered Yellow Springs. Protest signs sprouted up along roadsides. Residents, afraid of impending subdivisions, strip malls, or factories, held yard sales to raise money to buy the land.

“It was phenomenal — absolutely phenomenal,” says Magaw, who was a newcomer to Yellow Springs at the time. “People were so active. There were conversations on the street, in the grocery story: ‘What’s going to happen?’”

The local government chipped in $325,000. Local residents raised another $600,000, But that wouldn’t be enough. The land trust, an all-volunteer group, hoped an angel would come forward with enough to buy the farm, but by auction day, no one appeared.

‘Bid on the Entire Farm’

David and Sharen Neuhardt went to the auction hoping to buy some of the acreage. In front of the Springfield Holiday Inn where the auction was taking place, protesters waved picket signs. Inside the banquet hall where the auctioneers had assembled, only bona fide bidders were allowed. The Neuhardts already owned 35 acres of Whitehall Farm, and they lived in the 1842 mansion. They hoped to buy maybe 250 acres of surrounding parcels.

But they also had an interest in protecting the farm. David was a member of the task force the village created to try to protect the farm. And he was a member of the Tecumseh Land Trust Board.

“We wanted to see as much of the farm put back together as much as we could,” he says.

Around them, the room seemed to be in chaos. Bidders made offers on various configurations of parcels. Auctioneers compared bids and tried to increase the prices.

Sharen turned to him. “You know, the only way we’re going to get control of this is to put a bid on the entire farm,” she told him.

David considered the idea. “How are we going to pay for it?” he asked.

They were both lawyers with successful practices, but most of their money had gone into repairing the old farmhouse. They had about $1,500 in their checking account.

Members of the village task force in the room assured them they could have the town money if they put the land in a conservation easement. Farmers agreed in handshake deals to buy some of the land. A bank official nervously ran the numbers. She thought she could get the Neuhardts a loan.

“We bid on the whole farm,” David says. The banquet hall went into a frenzy.

Auctioneers tried to get rivals to raise their bids. Protesters had worked their way into the hall and realized the fate of the property hung in the balance. Then they realized the buyers were on their side.

“Sell the farm!” they chanted at the auctioneers.

They did. A few weeks and $3.28 million later, the farm belonged to the Neuhardts, all 950 acres protected by a conservation easement through the Tecumseh Land Trust.

Now, the land trust operates in the former farm manager’s house, where it oversees conservation easements on 140 properties. Corn and soybeans grow on the Whitehall Farm. Cattle roam the pastures.

This success convinced skeptical residents that conservation easements weren’t just about protecting pretty places, Magaw says. They could also save farms.

“It was a huge local victory,” she says, “and it showed that a grassroots organization like this was able to move quickly to do something that mattered a lot to local people. That’s why local land trusts are important.”