BRC Board

Virginia Tate, President

I was “born and raised” in western North Carolina. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that these mountains were very important to me.

I have spent the last 25 years living in Hickory NC with my husband and 3 now grown children. Other than being a wife and mother, I have been involved in many volunteer activities with church and our community. My strongest interest has been gardening in my own yard as well as others.

In 1996, we were fortunate to purchase a 368 acre farm in the northwest corner of Ashe Co. We wanted it primarily as a place for our family and friends to be to enjoy the mountains. At the time we were buying the property, Sandy Schenck (then president of the board of The Conservation Trust of North Carolina) introduced me to the idea of conservation easements. In 2001, we purchased another 170 acre farm that adjoined us. At that time I began working with James Coman to draft an easement for our farm. After a lot of discussion with our family, we were able to establish that easement in 2003. It was a wonderful feeling to know that our 500 acres would be protected forever. We then made the decision to hold any tax savings we received from the easement and use it to purchase more property to put under easement. We are now up to 700 acres (and I think we are finished!) Most of this additional acreage was placed under conservation easement in 2006.

During these years, the focus of our property has changed. It is now a working livestock farm. We raise grass fed cattle, sheep and goats. We have worked with the NC Environmental Enhancement Program to protect our streams and wet areas. We have worked with our local NRCS, farm, forestry and wildlife extension to implement best management practices for our property. With all of this, my idea of conservation of lands has grown a bit. At first, I was most interested in the protection of view sheds and biological diversity. Now I include the importance of conservation easements to protect working farm and forest lands. I also see an important role of the Blue Ridge Conservancy in educating farmers to be good stewards of their working farms. I am very excited to be a part of this work.

Ann Baker, Vice President

Ann Baker, of Crossnore, NC, has deeply-rooted connections to the land in northwest North Carolina. Ann spent many summers in the home her Great Grandfather built in Blowing Rock overlooking the Globe Valley and has vivid memories of enjoying the smells of the moss in the Rhododendron woods and the purity of the air instilling in her a respect for clean air and water.

Ann and her husband, Charlie, have three children. Ann enjoys being outside, hiking, swimming, boating, and gardening. When she’s not enjoying her time outdoors, Ann manages a Christmas tree farm and teaches fine arts students at The Crossnore School, Mayland Community College, and Penland School of Crafts. Ann has her own art studio and has managed the Fine Arts Gallery at The Crossnore School. Ann also devotes her time to improving her community through Crossnore’s non-profit organization and serves on advisory boards at Warren Wilson’s Environmental Leadership Center and The Avery Partnership for People at the End of Life.

John Turner, Secretary

John Turner is President and Shareholder of Turner Law Office, PA in Boone. John is married to Patti M. Turner (a real estate broker, personal trainer, and co-founder of Appalachian Women’s Fund), with whom he has one child, Ryan. Ryan is a high school senior and has committed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, where he will play baseball as an infielder. John’s hobbies include singing, playing guitar, hiking, and following the Tar Heels during basketball season. Patti and John are longtime supporters of OASIS (Opposing Abuse with Service, Information, and Shelter), Inc.

John’s interest in land protection developed through his law practice, which includes a heavy concentration of real estate work and where he handled some conservation transactions. He loved the concept and wanted to help support it. John learned about BRC from his friend Richard Stevens, former board member for Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust. John asked Richard if he could attend a meeting to learn more about the organization.

John’s interest in land conservation came from many years of observation; watching nearly every farm and undeveloped tract near Boone succumb to subdivision and other development pressures. Protecting the beauty and rural culture of northwestern North Carolina in a manner that also benefits the landowners was his primary motivation, and it has been deeply gratifying to contribute to Blue Ridge Conservancy’s successful efforts.

Steve Wiley, Treasurer

My husband and I first discovered Ashe County in 2002 while visiting family who had rented a mountain home for an extended summer vacation.  We quickly fell in love with the area and within two months of this first visit, we had purchased a log cabin overlooking the New River.   Even though we were living and working in Charlotte, we spent almost every weekend and vacation in our cabin and cherished the time we were able to spend here.

In 2006 we purchased 26 acres of land in Todd that had already been protected by conservancy easements.  Over time, we expanded our holdings to encompass 80 acres of conserved land.  In 2010, we built a home on the property and relocated full time to the High Country.  We consider ourselves quite lucky, indeed, to be able to call this part of the world our home.

A native North Carolinian, I was introduced to the NC mountains at a very early age with frequent family camping trips to the Smoky Mountains and other natural areas throughout the eastern US.  My attraction to the mountains grew after college when I spent two years living in Lake Tahoe in the California Sierra Nevada mountains.  After a 25 year career in the apartment development and management business, I knew I wanted to put my work experience and personal passions towards protecting land in the High Country.  My affiliation with the Blue Ridge Conservancy provides me with that opportunity.  I truly value working with like-minded people throughout the area to do what we can to preserve this special part of the world.

Chris Bensen

Ann Browning

Ann is a native North Carolinian, having grown up in High Point.  She developed a love for the North Carolina mountains thanks to frequent childhood visits.  She and her husband, Ric, enjoy gardening, fishing, and doing projects on their property in Ashe County.

Ann’s first career in banking spanned 23 years with Bank of America (originally NCNB) where she was involved with corporate banking, investment banking and private equity investing.  When she chose to pursue a second career, she wanted to focus her efforts on preserving the natural resources and character of her native North Carolina.  She become involved with the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land in Charlotte.  When the Carolina Thread Trail, a 15 county initiative to connect trails, open space and regional attractions, was being planned, she joined as the first full time staff person.  As the Carolina Thread Trail Director,  she worked on community outreach, branding, public and private fund raising, and the development and oversight of The Thread’s community grants program.  She retired after seven wonderful years with The Thread to spend more time in the mountains and in Davidson, NC.  She sees land conservation as a critical element in ensuring that the High Country remains a healthy and attractive place to visit, work, and play. Ann earned her bachelor’s degree from Davidson College, where she currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and her MBA from the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Sonny Church

Sonny lives in his native community of Wilkesboro, North Carolina where he owns and operates Brushy Mountain Water Company and Creative Reclamation. While growing up in Wilkes County, Sonny was drawn to the woods and streams near his home and learned at an early age to appreciate the adaptability and diversity of nature. Sonny earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Appalachian State University and considers himself a life-long learner. Sonny enjoys the opportunities his life offers him to meet new people and gain new experiences.

Sonny is also very active in his community. He volunteers his time with the Yadkin Valley Greenway Council, the Wilkes County Heritage Museum, and participates in the “Lunch Buddy” program at the Wilkes County Schools. Sonny believes that efforts such as Wilkes County’s greenway development and BRC’s land and water protection have permanent and positive impacts from which future generations can benefit. Land protection, including greenways, can be an important tool as we strive to find balance between land and resource conservation and the commercial and residential development that comes with a community’s growth.

Kelly Coffey

Born and raised in the Aho community of Watauga County, Kelly Coffey graduated from Appalachian and taught history at Caldwell Community College for six years. He has been a regional planner with the High Country Council of Governments, which serves as staff extensions for 26 local governments helping them with tasks such as ordinance revisions, planning documents, annexation studies, and salary studies, since 1998.

Kelly finds that the need to preserve land is obvious, all one has to do is look around. “When a landscape is ruined it negatively affects people in terms of identity, spirituality and community cohesion. Saving land is much more than an environmental issue,” says Kelly who understands, holistically, the consequences of land degradation. In his free time, Kelly operates an income-producing farm consisting of 100 heritage apples trees, vegetables and cattle. Having been in his family for over 130 years, his farm is designated by the NC Department of Agriculture as a North Carolina Century Farm.

John Cooper

John is the former president and founder of the Mast General Store, Inc. John and his wife, Faye, have one daughter, Lisa Martin. Lisa is the Vice President of Mast General Store Inc. John enjoys hiking and biking and volunteers his time extensively. He has served on numerous community, regional and statewide boards as member and officer. Currently, John is working with a group trying to save and restore the Appalachian Theatre in Boone and is a member of Boone Sunrise Rotary.

John’s history with Blue Ridge Conservancy goes back many years and includes the donation of conservation easements to protect the beautiful community of Valle Crucis. Through Mast General Store, Inc. John also established Land Trust Day on the first Saturday of June each year, which directly supports BRC. John is committed to land protection in the High Country.

Susan Hambright

Susan lives in Blowing Rock and has a farm in Avery County that is in a conservation easement. She fell in love with the mountains when she lived in Idaho in the late 1970’s and has seen the need to protect our land ever since. Knowing that uncontrolled development would destroy our lands and natural habitat, she has been an advocate for saving our resources for future generations. It is her way of “paying it forward” to people yet to come. She is a CPA and has served on several non profit boards over the years, and is currently a guardian ad litem where she advocates for at risk children in court. Married to Bob for 36 years, they have 2 grown sons.

Cobb Milner

Cobb and his wife Cindy own and operate Gideon Ridge Inn, Bistro Roca and the New Public House & Hotel in Blowing Rock. A resident of the High Country since 1992, Cobb has an engineering degree from Union College (NY) and an MBA from the University of Chicago. In 1994, Cobb and Cindy took over control of Gideon Ridge where, working with Cobb’s parents, they expanded the operation and started the Restaurant at Gideon Ridge. In 2005, they bought and renovated the former Antlers Bar property and started Bistro Roca and in 2013, they bought and renovated the former Sunshine Inn property and started the New Public House & Hotel. Since 2008, Gideon Ridge has hosted the summer meeting and reception of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. In 2014, Cobb joined the board of directors of the Blue Ridge Conservancy. Cobb is an avid cyclist and he loves hiking, snow skiing, traveling and living in Blowing Rock.

Meagan Phillips

Zika Rea

Zika is the President and Co-Founder of the ZAP Fitness Foundation and Director of ZAP Fitness. Zika and her late husband, Andy Palmer, moved to Blowing Rock in 2002 and founded the running focused nonprofit. ZAP Fitness is a training center for Elite Runners and includes programs and running camps for recreational runners. While the ZAP facilities were being built in 2002, Zika earned a master’s degree in Exercise Science from Appalachian State University. Zika originally hails from the suburbs of St. Louis and she attended Emory University where she earned a B.S. in Biology. Zika lives in Blowing Rock with her husband Pete Rea who is the Elite Athlete Coach and Coordinator at ZAP Fitness. They have two children.

John Sherrill 

Larry Trivette

Larry is a High Country native who grew up in Todd, N.C., just outside of Boone. Larry is an avid outdoorsman with interests that include backpacking, trail running, hunting, and fly-fishing. During his 32-year career in the N.C. State Park system, Larry spent more than 20 years at Stone Mountain and Morrow Mountain State Parks. In 2004, Larry became the first permanent superintendent of Elk Knob State Park where he led a five-year effort to build an all-volunteer constructed trail to the summit of Elk Knob. The 1.9-mile trail is one of the most scenic and well-built trails in the High Country. Larry currently lives in Todd and he travels often to visit his three daughters all of whom work for various park systems throughout the country.


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