The Right Thing to Do
by Tom Oder
Tony Aeck remembers as a child in the early 1950s “the many times I heard my parents describe to people why they would possibly go so far away from the city and out in the country.” When Richard and Molly Aeck purchased 14.6 acres on West Wesley Road from Adm. Clark Howell Woodward in 1937, the site must have indeed seemed isolated. At the time, that portion of West Wesley was little more than a rustic gravel road through a forest. Even though the forested location still seems isolated, the Aeck property is now considered close in. With 640 feet of frontage on the Chattahoochee River, one of the nation’s 20 most endangered rivers, it is in one of Atlanta’s most desirable areas.
In addition to river views, the property features a natural amphitheater with seating for 175 to view summer movies on a large screen, plus a meadow, a mature six-acre hardwood forest, and a pond that support a variety of wildlife. The Aeck home was built in four stages, the first three by Tony’s parents and the last by himself, along with renovation of the rest. Tony’s father was an architect, as is he (LORD AECK SARGENT), and his mother was an interior designer. She decorated the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and worked as a Taliesin Fellow in 1942 with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Tony describes the house, which Wright visited, “as a blend of Prairie style and rustic Mid-century Modern.”
Some of Tony’s earliest and most impressionable memories are of the amphitheater, which was in a different location in his youth. The original amphitheater was built to provide a venue for Opera Arts, a conservatory/workshop for students who were aspiring opera singers. “I recall quite a commotion of hauling an upright piano over there in a war surplus jeep my father bought at Fort McPherson, running wire, and stocking the soft drink coolers. It was a big production and made quite an impression on me as a youth. That helped connect me to the property more than anything.”
In October 2008, he made that connection permanent and put approximately 7.8 acres in an easement. He reached this decision after being what he calls “sensitized for quite a long time to responsible design and responsible use of landscape.” The sensitizing came from multiple sources: his parents; his profession; through various roles in the Trust for Public Land, where he learned about easements; and through his children’s Scouting and environmental activities. As an architect, “I try to do very sustainable projects, such as the Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech that is designed to be ‘net positive’ for power and water. I am the environmental person on our neighborhood association board. I recently saw a discussion of the degradation of the city’s tree canopy from a quantitative point. In Atlanta, we replant trees, but the article said the quality [of what is replanted] is another factor. I would like to think we are preserving a high quality of landscape and trees here. I try to walk the walk.”
The easement accomplishes numerous purposes besides saving the tree canopy. It preserves the legacy of his parents, both of whom Tony said passed away in their beds in the house, and their desire not to develop the land. It also protects the undeveloped nature of the river frontage, creates a terrestrial conservation corridor along the river, and preserves the natural beauty of views by recreational users of the river. In addition, with rising property taxes, it removes any temptation to fragment the property by “flaking off a part of it and selling it to builders to pay the taxes on the rest, cannibalizing it in essence.”
Tony confesses to some initial skepticism, “because it was obviously forever. But, I think by educating myself [about easements], I became convinced it was the right thing to do.” Years later, the transparency of the easement has worked out so well that it’s not something he thinks about. “I did enough due diligence in identifying how we wanted to live and use the property going forward that it’s not intrusive once it is done. And I think that’s certainly a reason to consider it.” He urges anyone considering a conservation easement to call the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, read several easement contracts, consult their tax advisor, think hard about how they want to use their property going forward, and to think about what they want their legacy to be to any offspring and their community.
He’s not worried about how his children might honor his legacy or that of their grandparents. Both are in environmentally related fields. “I hope,” he said, with a father’s knowing smile, “the apples don’t fall too far from the tree.”