Alston-Isaacson business, political relationship questioned

by Jordan Green

In two high-profile land-use cases that have come before the Guilford County Commission this year Commissioner Skip Alston has sided with proponents represented by Henry Isaacson and Marc Isaacson, a father-son partnership whose law firm has helped many real estate clients gain approval for development projects from county and city government.

In August, Alston voted with the majority to help Tennessee-based Astec Industries, a company that reported $710.6 million in sales last year, roll over neighborhood resistance to install a hot-mix asphalt plant at a site near Interstate 85. And in April Alston joined a unanimous vote to approve an athletics complex operated by former professional football player Ricky Proehl in northwestern Guilford County that elicited an outcry of protest from affluent residents concerned about traffic hazards and deteriorating real estate values. Neither of the sites fall within Alston’s district, which snakes through the comparative poor and predominantly African-American southeast portion of Greensboro.

The Isaacsons and Alston share more than a petitioner-commissioner relationship. The father and son own a 50 percent stake in the East Market Street Square shopping center, a commercial strip across from NC A&T University in Greensboro that houses the Alston Realty Group, Shipman Family Home Care and East Market Street Billiards, among other businesses. Alston is the president of East Market Street Square and the owner of the remaining 50 percent of the company’s equity. The arrangement has been something of an open secret for several years. The commissioner said it’s not a problem for him to vote on matters brought before the county governing board by the Isaacsons.

“In 1998, I asked the county attorney whether or not it’s a conflict of interest and he said, “No,'” Alston said. “I do not benefit from any deal that he brings before us. I am not a part of his law firm. We have a distant business relationship that has nothing to do with county government. And I don’t always vote with him either.”

Marc Isaacson wrote in an e-mailed statement on Monday that Alston’s is only one of 11 votes on the commission.

“Before we take on any matter, we screen it very carefully and work hard to present a case that is based on the merits of the law,” he wrote. “At the time we were invited to invest in this property, we checked with the county attorney, who advised us that, unless any commissioner has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the matter, that commissioner is required to vote under the law. Regardless of Skip Alston’s position, we remain committed to the redevelopment of East Market Street.”

Alston said he didn’t recall which specific cases argued by the Isaacsons elicited an unfavorable vote from him. A handful of rezoning cases reviewed by YES! Weekly since 2004, when Alston was most recently reelected to the commission, found that Alston consistently voted in favor of his business partners. But then so did most other members of the commission; the Isaacsons usually win their cases with the approval of a comfortable majority.

Sharron Kurtz, the current county attorney, did not return calls seeking confirmation that Alston’s votes on matters argued by his business partners have passed legal muster. But a lawsuit filed against the county commission by Joseph Moss, a neighboring resident opposed to the Proehlific Park development, calls the legality of the votes into question.

The suit argues that an unnamed commissioner who had a business relationship with one of the lawyers representing an applicant for a special use permit should have been disqualified from voting, citing a state law governing a “board or any other body exercising the functions of a board of adjustment.” The law forbids any member of such a board from voting on a matter “in a manner that would violate affected persons’ constitutional rights to an impartial decision maker.” Impermissible conflicts of interest include a member having “a close familial, business or other associational relationship with an affected person.”

Moss declined to comment for this story.

If the arrangement between Alston and the Isaacsons is not illegal, it has certainly raised some eyebrows.

“I just think that’s splitting a really fine hair,” said Craig Wagoner, chair of the Guilford County Open Space Committee, of Alston’s claim that his business relationship with the Isaacsons poses no conflict of interest. “One would assume that you would not want to vote against equal-equity business partners.”

Wagoner, whose family owns a nursery in the northwest quadrant of the county, has been actively campaigning to stop Florida-based Blue-Green Corp. from building a high-end golf community on land along the Guilford-Rockingham county line that he and others hope to set aside for the nascent Haw River State Park. The Guilford County Planning Board approved the development project in August by a vote of 5 to 2 after Henry Isaacson successfully argued the company’s case. An appeal to that decision will bring the matter before the county commission in mid-December – making it potentially the third high-profile case of the year in which one of the Isaacsons has argued on behalf of a developer before the commission.

“For Mr. Isaacson to bring this Blue-Green matter before the county as he has done quite eloquently, obviously Mr. Alston is not going to vote against this,” Wagoner said.

Wagoner said he hopes a majority of the county commissioners will appreciate the depth of opposition to the Blue-Green development and scuttle the deal, but advocates for the park do not view Alston as a promising convert.

“We never counted on Alston in the first place, but we would love to have a conversation with him about why he should support the park,” Wagoner said. “His constituents would benefit far greater from a park than a gated golf course. The biggest thing we have to remember is what kind of legacy we want to pass on to our children and their children. Is it going to be another ho-hum neighborhood with four-hundred-thousand-dollar houses that are ubiquitous and a golf course, which may not be economically viable? I just think it’s pretty clear that we have two choices.”

At first glance, Alston and the Isaacsons would appear to be unlikely allies. Rhetorically, Alston has been an unabashed champion of building black political clout and economic strength.

In most of the cases argued by the Isaacsons, Alston has played a low-key role, although he seconded a motion by Commissioner Billy Yow in September 2005 to approve a rezoning request argued by Henry Isaacson that allowed Greensboro developer Roy Carroll to pursue a mixed-use planned development on the eastern fringe of the city.

“My goal was that this would be a fearless organization that would scare white people,” Alston told delegates at a convention of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Greensboro as he made an unsuccessful bid for another term as president of that organization in 2005. “That’s why we put out our legislative report card…. I have an African-American agenda, and white folks don’t like that.”

The Isaacsons, who are white, are widely considered members of Greensboro’s business and political establishment. Henry Isaacson chairs the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority and has served on the board of trustees for NC A&T University. Both men are prolific contributors to development-friendly members of the Guilford County Commission and the Greensboro City Council.

Representing clients in hearings before the county and city boards, Marc Isaacson, a man who dresses conservatively in a suit and tie and wears his dark brown hair neatly trimmed, avoids rhetorical flourishes and sticks to technical language to the point of blandness, making his arguments sound eminently reasonable. His interactions with Alston during commission meetings are discrete, if not nonexistent.

“I would ask that you bear in mind what is in the best interest of all of Guilford County, not just one particular area,” he told the commissioners during the April 12 special meeting to consider a special use permit for Proehlific Park. “And I would ask the board to consider the future of Guilford County and the need for this type of facility and the reason that we’ve made this application.”

For most of the hearing Isaacson stayed out of the way, presenting a parade of experts, including two engineers and a real estate appraiser, to build the case that the development met all the criteria required to issue a special use permit – that the project would not endanger public safety, that it would not injure the value of adjacent property, that it was a public necessity and that it would be in general harmony with the surrounding area.

For nearly four hours the Old County Courthouse was an arena for a pitched battle between two relatively affluent factions. On one side was Proehl, with his proposal for a private, members-only athletic park for children, accompanied by legions of supporters, many of them young families. On the other side were longtime retired residents who made it clear they would like to maintain the elderly demographic of the neighborhood. One might think that Alston’s constituents in southeast Greensboro would have little stake in the dispute.

Proehl provided much of the emotional content of the pitch.

“My vision is to create a safe environment for moms and dads to drop off their kids and know they’re in good hands,” the professional athlete said.

Many of the speakers on both sides were lawyers and realtors with both a personal and professional stake in the outcome. The discourse became raw and emotional at times, providing a rare glimpse of social relations in a community comprised of residents who fall in some of the county’s highest income brackets.

One of them, lawyer Seldon Patty, said he owned property on Tory Hill Road that backed up to the Greensboro Country Club. He had planned to build a house there so he could live on a golf course when he retired. Anticipating that traffic from the proposed athletic park would diminish his enjoyment of his future home, he put the property back on the market.

“It’s not in harmony with the surrounding area,” Patty said. “I’ve proven that. It’s not enhancing property values. I can’t sell my lot.”

Norman Klick, a second lawyer representing Ricky Proehl, saw an opening.

“What is the Greensboro Country Club?” he asked. “It’s a place where adults go to play sports, have fellowship, play cards and have late-night parties. I’ve been to one. The only difference is that Proehlific Park is for kids. As the father of four boys, I submit that it is a sad day in our community when creating a park for children will hurt property values in the community.”

Percy Wall, a retired defense lawyer of local renown and an opponent of the athletic park, took offense.

“I live on Tory Hill Road,” he said. “More than half the people on Tory Hill Road are members of the Greensboro Country Club. I don’t know why they bring up personal items like that. We try to keep personal items out of it. These people on my street are good people.”

One of the speakers, a trial lawyer named Joseph Moss, said he initially attempted to organize opposition to the Proehlific Park development on his own, but then realized he would need outside counsel. Lawyer Don Vaughan, a former Greensboro city councilman who frequently represents rezoning opponents, was on hand at the April 12 meeting.

“The lawyer who represents himself has a damn fool for a client,” Moss said. “And I was an example of that arguing before the planning board. Actually, I tried to hire Mr. Isaacson, but he turned me down. But he did recommend Don Vaughan, so I guess I got a good lawyer.”

Moss went on to describe a visit by two neighbors, Alan W. Sutton and Thomas Somerville, who sought his blessing on their plan to develop the adjacent property for the athletic park.

“When Mr. Sutton and Mr. Somerville, both of whom are my friends – I’m very unhappy with them right now, but they are my friends, Tom especially, because he has golden retrievers and so do I and we talk about them all the time,” Moss said. “But they came in my living room and said, “It’s not going to have an effect on the value of property on Jessup Grove Road.’ And I looked them both in the eye and said, “Alan and Tom, I will tell you what I will do’ – because I bought this house to retire in. I looked at them without batting an eye and said, “I will sell you my house today for the Guilford County tax value on it if you don’t think it’s going to reduce the value, and you can make a big profit off it. And they both turned me down.”

A month later, Moss would become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Sutton and Somerville. The other defendants were Proehl, Tory Hill Partners development group and the county commission.

Isaacson told the commissioners during rebuttal period of the hearing: “I would submit to you – and I think that we’re all aware – that with the significant growth we’ve seen in this area something will happen with this property. The findings of fact that you are to make are based on the evidence that’s been presented, not speculation, conjecture, emotion or feeling.”

Following the conclusion of the public hearing, Alston made a motion to approve the special use permit for Proehlific Park.

Alston briefly questioned Proehl about the cost of memberships for the park.

Memberships would cost $100 per month, Proehl replied.

“What about children who can’t afford it?” Alston asked.

“Scholarship programs,” Proehl answered.

Later, Alston pressed Proehl for details about how the scholarship programs would work, but the former professional athlete remained vague.

“As a real estate professional for twenty-five years – and I serve on the North Carolina Real Estate Commission – I don’t think this facility is going to be a detriment to the community and I do feel that it has met all the requirements for the special use permit,” Alston said, “but I would hope that you would have some scholarships to make it available to the general use.”

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