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Now or never

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Was it a mistake for the Wake County commissioners to put a $15 million bond issue for open-space preservation on the ballot this year? I ask only because folks in the county are being asked to support $500 million for schools, not to mention $3.1 billion for colleges and universities, and then Raleigh's got its hand out for $75 million and--well, you know the old saying--at some point, it adds up to real money.

"Actually," says Commissioner Yevonne Brannon, "we couldn't afford to wait." Brannon's just finished speaking at one of those made-for-TV events plugging the bond. At her back was historic Yates Mill, a pretty picture for the cameras. To her right, the steady whoosh of traffic bound for Raleigh up Lake Wheeler Road. That was Brannon's shortcut from Fayetteville to N.C. State when she was in graduate school 25 years ago. It was wide open then. Now, bring a crossword for the backup at Tryon Road.

"We just really have a few seconds in time to grab some of these sites and protect them, because they're going to be gone," Brannon adds. The money, if approved, will be offered to local governments who'll match it to buy parkland, forests, stream beds and so on for the future. But everybody this morning is thinking in historical terms, since Yates Mill goes back to 1756, or 43 years before there was a Raleigh. Restoration of the mill is nearing completion. Around it, a 640-acre preserve is starting to take shape, part county park, part research farm for N.C. State and the state Department of Agriculture.

Wake County plans to build an educational center along the millpond, so that schoolkids and the latest transplants from somewhere else will know the place they live and how they came to be part of it. Why's that important? Because if people see themselves in history, they'll get it that future generations will see them, too. Why should anyone vote to pay $15 million so that a farm will exist here 100 years from now? No other reason than history.

As bond issues go, this is a tiny one, easy to overlook, easy to say--after $3.6 billion--enough's enough. But because it's Wake County's first for open space and because open space is going so fast, its fate is more important than its dollar amount might suggest. If the school bond fails, for instance, there will be another school bond next year, as there was after last year's disaster. But if the open-space bond fails, it could set the land-conservation cause back a decade. "The question is, why wasn't this on the ballot 10 years ago?" Yevonne Brannon asks.

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