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Original prison site now protected land

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Conservationists cringed two years ago when the state considered building a prison along the New River in the Cox’s Chapel community of Grayson County.

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Now they can celebrate the fact that the riverfront property has been protected from future development.

An adjacent landowner, who bought the 170-acre tract last year, has filed a permanent conservation easement for the property and his family farm, protecting a serene stretch of the New River. Hundreds of acres of farmland on the opposite side of the river already had been preserved through easements agreed to by landowners.

M.F. “Buster” Osborne, 92, finalized the easement for his land — a total of 546 acres — on Dec. 19. The easement will be held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the National Committee for the New River.

Osborne’s farm surrounds land that had been considered for a 1,024-bed medium security prison. His nephew, Bobby Osborne, feeds the cattle and takes care of other farming chores on the land, which has been in the family for generations.

“It would have ruined his farm,” said Bobby Osborne’s wife, Norma, pointing out that the only access to the proposed prison site was through Buster Osborne’s property.

Many opponents of the prison plan argued that it would harm the rural Cox’s Chapel community and hurt river-related tourism. The Virginia Department of Corrections ultimately decided on a site along U.S. 58 near Independence to build the prison. Construction is underway, and it is expected to open in 2010.

Buster Osborne decided to buy the property next to his farm before another development proposal could surface, Norma Osborne said.

He then placed the newly acquired land and his own farm under easement to shield it from future development.

“It has so much river frontage,” said Elizabeth Obenshain, executive director of the New River Land Trust, which educates landowners about the easement process. “Because it’s on the New River, there is so much development pressure on that land.”

Norma Osborne said the farm has rolling hills that offer scenic views of the river and protected land on the other side of the river. The family wants to keep the land rural and has no interest in developing it, she said.

“We have children and grandchildren, and they’re interested in farming,” she said. “We want to preserve the land.”

Osborne’s story will appear on a new Web site called LandScope America (landscope.org), an online resource developed by NatureServe and the National Geographic Society.

More than 18 miles along the New River are protected with conservation easements. Osborne’s property fronts a popular stretch of the New River Blueways canoe trail.

“It was a privilege to work with the Osbornes to help them protect their family farm and also leave a legacy for future generations,” said Neal Kilgore, a conservation easement specialist with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. “This legacy includes the perpetual opportunity to grow food and forests, while also providing a place for wildlife and enhancing recreational resources like the New River.”