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Kay and Larry Hess - Protecting Nature in North Georgia

by Larry Dendy

Larry and Kay Hess stand on a sloping hillside gazing quietly at the surrounding early-April landscape. Tiny green leaves sprouting from giant oak and hickory trees flutter in the air, accented by colorful blooms of dogwoods and redbuds. The forest floor is emerald-speckled with emerging ferns, trilliums, mayapple and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

In the distance the Middle Fork of the Broad River flows gently along, its muddy banks bordered by river cane and imprinted with tracks of deer, coyote and raccoon. The bright trill of sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays breaks the stillness, punctuated by the occasional squawk of a Pileated Woodpecker.

“When I began acquiring this property I thought about maintaining its natural wild charm for posterity and I remembered The Tree That Owns Itself in Athens,” says Larry, who lived in Athens as a teenager. “Kay and I believe donating this conservation easement has fulfilled our desire to protect the property and we believe ORLT will be good stewards of the land.”

Larry and Kay have enjoyed their woodland retreat in the uplands of Banks County, GA, for more than a quarter of a century. And they intend that it will remain as nature created it—isolated, wild and unspoiled by human activity. Last year they ensured their vision by placing 205 acres of the property in a conservation easement with the Oconee River Land Trust.

The land, just a few miles from the town of Baldwin, was farmed in the 19th and early 20th centuries and then timbered. But it’s been mostly idle for several decades, allowing the return of native trees, shrubbery, flowers and grasses, and wildlife.

With elevations ranging from 700 to 1,100 feet, the land harbors a wide range of ecological features including high priority upland mesic hardwood, oak-hickory-pine and natural pine forests. Upheavals of ancient metamorphic rocks pock the landscape.

Nancy Town Creek flows 485 feet along the northwestern border into the Middle Fork of the Broad, which continues another four-tenths of a mile through a bottomland hardwood forest of sycamore, beech, red maple and American hop-hornbeam. Numerous streams cut through the property, protected by 200-foot riparian buffers that help filter pollutants from surface.

Some streams pour over large boulders, creating sparkling waterfalls. One stream flows through a freshwater marsh partially created by beaver dams. The streams are in the Broad River Watershed, parts of which DNR has designated as high priority.

And while Larry and Kay hold legal title to this land, they say it doesn’t really belong to them. “We don’t own all this,” Kay says, “we just take care of it.” The Hesses’ conservation easement ensures the land will never be developed but allows some leeway in how they can use the property.

Larry, a retired Atlanta architect, bought the first 40 acres of the tract in 1975 and gradually added more over the years. Kay, a retired pharmacist, and Larry met in 1984 and 10 years later they married on the property. Along with their children, other family and friends, they spent many weekends rambling over the land, playing in the streams and cooling off in the summer under a waterfall that tumbles off a 50-foot rock ledge.

In the late 1990s, Larry and Kay moved to the property. Their first dwelling was a structure created by anchoring two refrigerated truck trailers on concrete slabs and connecting them with a metal roof. About 60 percent of the windows and doors are recycled as is the attic insulation. With many improvements and upgrades, the structure is now a creative space for artists, sculptors or writers.

Later they built their current residence, a stunning contemporary earth-bermed house that Larry designed. Perched on a knoll, the house has a soaring 22-foot-high ceiling above a spacious main room featuring a fountain, giant plantings and original art work. The gable siding and eaves are of cypress with stones from the property at all of the entry openings.

Among the many pleasures of living on the property for Larry and Kay are enjoying the abundant wildlife. Wild turkeys forage beneath their bird feeders and sometimes peck at their windows. They once saw a bobcat peeping through the glass in a door. In addition to common North Georgia birds, migrant birds visit the property including White-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager and Hooded and Pine Warblers.

The Hesses are converting a two-room cabin on the property into a vacation getaway. Built around 1890 by a farmer who reportedly traded 100 twists of tobacco for lumber to build the floors and walls, the cabin is where they stayed when they first began coming to the property. They’re enlarging the structure and plan to rent it on a weekly basis. They are also allowed to build two single-family residences that could be used for rental or lodging for workers. “This will not only enable us to support and maintain the property but also share with others the experience of living close to the natural world,” Larry says.

Larry and Kay know they could have made a lot of money by selling their property instead of preserving it. But as Larry says, “It’s never been about the money. It’s always been about the land.”

And while they love the land and wish they would never have to leave it, they know that eventually they’ll have to sell. When that time comes, they will leave with the comforting knowledge that the hillsides and lowlands, the dense forests and quiet streams, the Mountain Laurel, Piedmont Azalea and Running Cedar, the fish, snakes, box turtles and possum—everything they treasure about this place--will always be there.

“We’ve been blessed to live here for 25 years and these woods will always be home to us,” Kay says. “Our hope and dream is that it will remain intact as nature dictates. We want these woods to provide the same sense of inspiration to whoever is here, instilling a desire to preserve and hold special our natural world.”

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