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Developer, Hall County, experts might bring plant preserve to life
Margaret Rasmussen, the horticultural chairwoman for the Gainesville Gateway Garden Club, wants this area to become a native plant preserve because of its impressive display of native vegetation. The nearly 12 acres, eight of which is owned by a land developer, is home to a number of native species. Here she points out a Rhododendron maximum (great laurel). - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Walking through the woods, Margaret Rasmussen not only takes the time to smell the flowers but to identify them.

To an untrained eye, the sloping eight-acre plot of woodland Rasmussen walked through Tuesday afternoon looks like any other undeveloped property on Lake Lanier.

But Rasmussen knows better, pointing out the rare native plants that grow there undisturbed.

Rasmussen, who is the horticultural chairwoman of the Gainesville Gateway Garden Club, points out a budding fly poison plant, a poke plant and a crane fly orchid.

"The crane fly orchid is the mascot of the Georgia Botanical Society," she said, explaining the rarity of the flower elsewhere in the world. "In these eight acres, it’s all over the place."

Rasmussen is pushing to save this small piece of land she called "an absolute microcosm" of Northeast Georgia wildlife from becoming eight homes in a subdivision.

She said what makes the property so unique is that it is home to nearly 80 species of native trees, shrubs and flowers undisturbed by humans and invasive plant species like kudzu.

Rasmussen came before the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Monday to propose turning the property into a native plant preserve.

The property is currently owned by business partners Bill Hanke and Bruce Stout, who had begun development in early 2007 when Rasmussen approached them about saving some of the plants.

"I didn’t realize how many native plants were on that property," Hanke said. "I didn’t see half the things Margaret saw."

Hanke said he had "absolutely no issues" letting Rasmussen on the property to mark off plants to be saved or moved.

Hanke said they were ready to begin building the houses but decided to wait because of the poor housing market and low lake level.

And within the last month or so after speaking with Rasmussen, Hanke is considering suspending development and selling the land as a preserve.

He said he is willing to do it even though he could lose money in the future by not building on the land.

"I’m a die-hard tree hugger," Hanke said. "It would not hurt my feelings nor my partner’s to see that land not be developed. I think it’s a beautiful piece of land."

Others have also noted the diverse plant life. Representatives from the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Hall County Master Gardeners and others evaluated the property and told Rasmussen it was worth fighting for.

"On this site we’re seeing amazing diversity. This site does not need restoration," Jennifer Ceska of the State Botanical Gardens said to the board of commissioners at Monday’s meeting.

The land is located off of White Sulfur Road in Hall County Commissioner Steve Gailey’s district.

"I think it’s a wonderful piece of property," Gailey said. "Unfortunately, it’s an expensive piece of property. I wish the county had the money."

Hall County does not have the funds to purchase the land but will most likely apply for a number of state and federal grants to obtain the property.

Rasmussen said she thinks there is a good chance Hall County can do it without using any county funds by getting money from sources like the Georgia Land Conservation Program, which could provide millions of dollars. Hall County has never applied for nor received money from this program.

"We should be entitled to some of this money just like the rest of the state," Gailey said.

Rasmussen said turning this property into a native plant preserve follows Hall County’s goal of having more protected green space and creates a model for environmentally responsible development.

"This is a model for Hall County to save itself," Rasmussen said.