The William Alston Rives house in Bear Creek, NC didn’t look like the kind of real estate that investors favor when Tom Mann bought it in the 1980s. The farmhouse had an outhouse and no indoor plumbing. Its appeal for Mann, 64, however, was purely emotional: Rives was Mann’s great-great-grandfather who had bought the site more than 170 years earlier.
The farmhouse and the surrounding acreage link Mann, a retired financial services executive, to the past and to the future. His great-great-grandfather’s grave is on the land. And Mann’s daughter Ellen accepted a marriage proposal in 2012 on the home’s rustic front porch. Ensuring that his family and its descendants can enjoy this meaningful acreage inspired him to restore the property and, while doing so, create an enduring legacy. It also offers lessons to others who would like to buy and restore property to create a personal and financial legacy.
Mann, a North Carolina native, discovered the house on a visit during the 1980s. He asked his mother about his childhood recollections of the house and then started his quest. He bought it and the five surrounding acres. He learned that his great-great-grandfather had done business from a small first-floor room. “The state historian could tell that’s how it was used,” Mann says, “because the room has a door to outside so business visitors wouldn’t have to enter the parlor.”
Mann didn’t have any grand plans as his uncle and father restored the house. That changed, however, after he moved back to North Carolina in the mid-1990s. He noticed urban sprawl from areas like Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina, about 30 miles away.
Eager to preserve the land’s rural character, he decided to grow his holdings from the five acres around the house to his great-great-grandfather’s 600 acres. This required a long-term strategy. “I developed relationships with landowners around the house,” Mann says. “When someone died, I was the first person who everyone called.” That effort paid off. Today, he holds about 500 acres.
Mann’s passion for creating a legacy has earned him the support of his entire family. For starters, “My wife, Jane, has been behind me in every step,” he says. Their three children, two of whom live in North Carolina, love the house. His extended family, especially his cousin Jackie, is also on board. “I have wonderful relatives who’ve been helping me,” Mann says. “For example, when I went to buy a tractor, Jackie did all of the negotiating, even though I used to negotiate deals in my corporate career before I retired.” Mann is also committed to connecting his family to the land by making the Rives House available to his many relatives—at least 120 of whom have attended family reunions—for weekend use.
Mann is working with the landscape architecture firm of Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) on a master plan for his holdings. He calls it “a forever plan.” “It won’t be completed in my lifetime,” he says.
Jeremy Jordan, manager for Mann’s project, and a member of NBW’s Conservation Agriculture Studio, says the plan encompasses three overlapping areas of stewardship: timberland, pasture, and wildlife habitat. Until recently, the property was managed solely as a timber plantation. The NBW plan involves clearing some timbered land for pasture to graze cattle, and creating wildlife habitats and meadows. “This was born out of an idea of creating vistas and views to a natural landscape that would also embellish the natural ecology of the site,” Jordan says. There’s a more personal goal, too, Mann confides: “My wife, Jane, wants to sit on the porch and see cows.”
Jordan’s colleague Breck Gastinger says, “It’s not just about creating pretty pictures.” Instead, the master plan gives a nod to the Rives House’s history as a farmhouse, a connection lost with the shift from agriculture to timber. “In addition, the plan creates diverse habitats, resists the spread of exotic invasive plants, and creates food sources for pollinators, and buffers for streams and wetlands,” Gastinger says.
NBW makes long-term plans. It’s unrealistic for landowners to expect “euphoric landscape bliss” right away, Gastinger says. “When a building or house is completed, it looks best on day one. Landscapes look raw on day one. There’s power in waiting and accepting that there’s a tremendous future ahead.”
A project of the scope that Mann has undertaken demands a significant financial commitment, which requires help from his financial advisor, lawyer, and accountant, who have collaborated. A limited liability company (LLC) funded with enough assets to cover maintenance and improvements owns the Rives House.
An LLC has many advantages as a vehicle for leaving a legacy, says Mann’s attorney, Matt Bullard of Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton in Raleigh, NC. An LLC allows the initiator to maintain control over the property. It’s a better vehicle for controlling property through the generations because the majority rules, says Bullard. Without an LLC, dissenting individual owners could seek to have the property partitioned by the court, resulting in the sale or breakup of the property that Mann has so painstakingly assembled.
An LLC also holds the potential to reduce eventual estate taxes. “If you make a gift early, you remove appreciation from your taxable estate,” Bullard says. Also, because property in an LLC can’t be freely liquidated, its value is discounted for estate tax purposes. To understand the tax consequences of every significant move, Bullard suggested that Mann ask his accountant to do a mock-up of his current year’s tax return. “There can be counterintuitive results,” he says. LLCs are not only for the very wealthy. Bullard said it could be a viable option even for a $100,000 home, as long as the LLC also includes assets to pay for the home’s upkeep. If young children are involved, Bullard suggests that a generation skipping or perpetuities trust own the LLC rather than the children themselves. This arrangement offers advantages for estate taxes and creditor protection.
Aside from the Rives House, Mann is also creating a legacy through the Tom and Jane Mann Family Foundation, which he established to make educational opportunities available to minority children and children with challenging family dynamics, such as children in foster homes or children of abused women. My grandmother used to say, “You take to heaven what you give away.” He would like to head to heaven feeling good about having helped less fortunate members of society, in addition to his family.