Before death, R.J. Corman permanently protected 1,200-acre farm

April 11, 2015

150409CormanFarm0012Before his death in 2013, railroad magnate R.J. Corman put permanent conservation easements on his 1,200-acre Jessamine County farm, which includes a 65-acre natural area around Jessamine Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen


NICHOLASVILLE — April Corman Colyer says her father always told her and her siblings that the farm he and they grew up on and gradually expanded to more than 1,200 acres would never be developed or sold out of the family.

When railroad magnate R.J. Corman said something, he meant it.

Before he died in August 2013 after a long battle with cancer, the founder of R.J. Corman Railroad Group arranged to put permanent conservation easements on the farm, the family planned to announce Sunday.

Without those easements, the beautifully landscaped property that stretches from the U.S. 27 Bypass at Nicholasville to U.S. 68 near Wilmore would have been prime subdivision land in a fast-growing county known for suburban sprawl.

It is the second such action by a prominent Central Kentucky family announced in recent weeks. Arthur Hancock and his wife, Staci, said March 20 that they had put conservation easements on their 2,200-acre Stone Farm in Bourbon County.

Both were arranged with help from the non-profit Bluegrass Conservancy, which is celebrating 20 years of helping landowners permanently preserve more than 24,500 acres of farmland and natural areas in the region.


R.J. Corman in 2004. Photo by Charles Bertram

Corman’s farm includes 65 acres near the headwaters of Jessamine Creek that the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission has designated as the R.J. Corman Natural Area.

“He told us that we would always have the farm, that it would always be something that our family could enjoy, but we would never be able to sell or develop it,” Colyer said.

“My Dad had a great vision and foresight, and he knew what would happen had he not set something like this in place,” she added. “Inevitably, the pressures of development are too great.”

Colyer is director of public affairs for the railroad services company her father started in 1973. R.J. Corman Railroad Group now has 1,500 employees in 24 states, including 700 in Kentucky.

She and her husband, Korey, and other family members live in five houses on the farm, including the one where Corman grew up as the son of a state highway toll booth worker.

The farm has been improved with 14½ miles of white plank fences and 15 miles of roads and recreation trails. It hosts several 5K races each year and an annual community Fourth of July celebration.

Corman planted hundreds of trees on the property, including maple trees that are tapped each year for syrup that is given to customers.

The farm adjoins about 800 acres that contain company shops and other facilities, including the headquarters office and aircraft hangars that are frequently used as event space for charity fundraisers.

The farm has about 300 head of cattle, chickens, a corn crop and a garden that provides vegetables for the company cafeteria.

The conservation easements permit no more than another 2 percent of the farm to ever be used for impervious surface, including buildings or roads, Colyer said.

Map“He wanted it preserved for his grandchildren and many generations to come,” she said. “He would always say when I was younger that if the land was to ever be sold, then the proceeds had to go to charity. It doesn’t exactly work that way now, but he has put constraints in place so that it can’t be sold.”

Colyer said she is happy with the decision, because the farm is as special to her as it was to her father.

“It has been a constant in my life no matter what was going on,” she said. “It’s home, but it’s more than that. It’s part of me. It’s where my heart is.”

Corman’s best friend, Central Bank President Luther Deaton, lives on 20 acres adjacent to a back corner of the farm. They could look across the farm and see each other’s houses a mile away.

“When he started buying that land, he said, ‘I don’t want anything to ever happen to it. I just want to make it beautiful so people could enjoy it.'” Deaton said. “And you’ve seen what he’s done.

“I get up every morning and look out at all that land and the cattle, all the green grass and trees,” Deaton added.

Conservation easements can have significant estate and tax benefits for landowners, said Mackenzie Royce, executive director of the Bluegrass Conservancy, the non-profit land trust.

“They can make it more affordable to pass land between generations,” she said, adding that no public funding is used and the land remains on tax rolls.

Royce said these two major easements are “a testimony to how it has begun to catch on in the community. The pace of conservation has really accelerated.”

The Bluegrass Conservancy was created in 1995 and recorded its first conservation easement in 1998, a cattle farm in Jessamine County. Conserved properties since then have included horse farms and natural areas along the Kentucky River.

“We’re not anti-development or anti-growth,” Royce said. “We’re about helping farm families in our community conserve our most strategic land for future generations and balancing that with the growth that we know is going to happen.”

 Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

Ted Turner helps Bluegrass Conservancy celebrate

May 14, 2010

Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner was in Woodford County tonight to help the Bluegrass Conservancy celebrate the milestone of putting 10,356 acres of the region’s land under conservation easements.

Turner, the founder of Cable News Network, attended a reception to honor the more than 50 landowners who have volunteered to permanently protect their farmland with conservation easements, and a dozen or so others who are thinking about it. The reception was at Woodburn Farm on Old Frankfort Pike near Midway, one of the Bluegrass’ grandest antebellum mansions.

Former Kentucky First Lady Libby Jones introduces Ted Turner on the steps of the Woodburn Farm mansion. Photos by Mick Jeffries/Bluegrass Conservancy

After a light dinner, the group gathered on the steps beneath the mansion’s majestic white columns to hear a few remarks from Turner, the nation’s largest individual landowner. Turner said he has 150,000 acres under conservation easements, and the rest of his holdings will be permanently protected upon his death.

“This is a very, very special place and it’s worth saving,” Turner said of the Inner Bluegrass region, which the World Monuments Fund has declared as one of the globe’s most endangered landscapes. “Ten thousand acres here is a lot of land, when you consider the average size of a farm. Thank goodness so much of it is protected, and I’m sure a lot more of it will be in the days to come.”

Turner said he visits the Lexington area several times a year. His daughter, Jennie Garlington, and her husband, Peek, own a horse farm in Bourbon County.

Helen Alexander, the chair of the Bluegrass Conservancy, and former Kentucky First Lady Libby Jones also talked movingly about the importance of land preservation to their family families. Jones’ family has  The Alexanders have owned Woodburn Farm for six generations. The farm, founded in 1790, helped create Kentucky’s thoroughbred industry and was home to the great sire Lexington. (Correction: Helen Alexander is not related to Alexanders of Woodburn Farm.)

The Bluegrass Conservancy, founded in 1995, is the region’s only private, nonprofit land trust working to use conservation easements to preserve agriculture viability, rural heritage, wildlife habitat, and scenic open space.

Turner also will appear Saturday evening at a reception at the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort to raise money for permanent recycling bins at the Kentucky Horse Park and to plant native landscaping along Cane Run Creek, which runs through the park.

Diverting money from PDR would be a mistake

February 28, 2010

When I moved back to Lexington in 1998, I realized just how much my hometown had sprawled in the 22 years I was away.

It wasn’t a complete surprise, of course. I had visited Lexington several times each year and watched things change around my parents’ home in a once-rural part of southern Fayette County. Farm after farm was carved up into subdivisions, shopping centers and estate lots.

Any healthy city needs to grow, and Lexington has managed growth better than most. Sprawl was limited by the Urban Services Boundary, created in 1958 and expanded a few times since then, as well as by minimum lot sizes for rural homes — 10 acres from 1964 to 1999, when they were increased to 40 acres.

Still, it was clear more than a decade ago that unless more was done, Lexington could eventually lose the rural landscape and unique agricultural soils that made it famous as the Horse Capital of the World. The World Monuments Fund has declared the Inner Bluegrass Region one of the planet’s 100 most endangered environments.

So, in 2000, the Urban County Council created the Purchase of Development Rights program. The goal was to permanently protect 50,000 acres of Fayette County’s most sensitive rural land — 27 percent of the county’s total land — with voluntary conservation easements by 2020.

So far, 24,126 acres have been protected, and program manager Billy Van Pelt expects to reach the halfway goal of 25,000 acres later this year. Landowners have either donated easements or sold them for an average of $2,500 per acre.

Conservation easements lower property taxes for landowners, because the cash value of their land is much less if it can’t be developed. “But nobody is getting rich off this,” Van Pelt said. If anything, it costs landowners in long-term economic benefit.

So far, the PDR program has cost $57.6 million — $31.5 million of which has come from state and federal grants. Van Pelt said the PDR program currently has applications from landowners wishing to sell about $8 million worth of conservation easements.

“The sooner we get to our goal, the sooner we’ll know when, how and where we’ll grow,” he said. “We need to preserve our farmland and plan for growth in the future.”

This year’s PDR program budget is $1.1 million, or about $4 for each Fayette County resident. That’s a pretty small amount in the grand scheme of things. But I’ve seen a few letters to the editor recently questioning the program’s value. And a couple of council members have made offhand suggestions that maybe PDR money should be diverted to other needs.

That would be a big mistake. While balancing the city budget won’t be easy this year — and perhaps for several years to come — Lexington must guard against the temptation to shortchange investments in long-term prosperity. Few of those investments are more important than protecting Fayette County’s unique landscape and environment.

Everyone knows Fayette County contains Kentucky’s second-biggest city, but many people don’t realize that it also has the state’s second-most valuable agricultural economy. Much of that comes from horse breeding, which provides 6,300 jobs. The horse industry also gives Lexington its global brand and is the anchor of its tourism industry.

Protecting Fayette County’s farmland is a good short-term deal for taxpayers. That’s because, unlike homeowners, the owners of farms and open land pay more in taxes than they use in taxpayer-funded city services.

But preserving farmland and open space is also an important long-term investment. In addition to preserving a large agricultural economy, it protects the environment from pollution. And it provides the open space and scenic beauty that are important factors in the hard-to-quantify “quality of life” attribute that makes people want to live in and around Lexington.

It also hedges Lexington’s bets for the future. For example, locally grown food could become increasingly important as rising oil prices make long-distance transportation of food more expensive.

“In our minds, PDR plays a critical role in Lexington’s economic future,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of The Fayette Alliance, a non-profit organization that focuses on land-use issues and sustainable development policy.

“If we’re going to preserve this rural land, we can’t leave it up to chance and politics,” said van Nagell, whose own family has donated conservation easements for the Fayette County land where they have raised cattle and row crops for 200 years. “We need to preserve this land in perpetuity.”

For more information

To learn more about Lexington’s Purchase of Development Rights program, visit the city’s Web site by clicking here.

To see PDR easements donated and granted as of September 2009, click here to see a searchable database.