Approval of golf community deals blow to state park

by Jordan Green

Haw River State Park is not the most prominent landmark in northern Guilford County. Drive east on Highway 150 past burgeoning subdivisions and the construction site for the new Northern Elementary, take a left on Spearman Road and look for a sign for the Summit. That’s the shortened name of the environmental education center that the state parks system acquired from the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina a couple years ago. An asphalt lane winds through rolling, wooded hills to a low-slung wooden conference center and further beyond to some rustic cabins. This 280-acre spread anchors the fledgling state park; three other smaller, noncontiguous parcels lie to the west. The park’s greatest charm might be the path that spills downhill to a broad splay of wetlands traversed by a boardwalk that ends at the muddy banks of the Haw River. With the headwaters only a few miles to the west, the river resembles little more than a wide ditch near the beginning of its journey downstream to Jordan Lake and ultimately to the port of Wilmington on the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to its scenic attributes, the wetlands surrounding the Haw River serve as a stopover for migrating birds, a breeding ground for amphibians, and a firebreak. The state Division of Parks and Recreation would like to acquire property along the Haw River to create a continuous network of trails and nature preserves. So it came as a blow when on Aug. 8 the Guilford County Planning Board approved the rezoning of a 569-acre tract immediately upstream from the conference center, which the state has long coveted. The rezoning, by a vote of 5 to 2, knocks away another hurdle for Florida-based Blue-Green Corp. to build an exclusive gated golf community straddling the Guilford-Rockingham county line similar to developments further downstream in the Haw River watershed. “Our initial planning for this park included that property,” said Division of Parks and Recreation spokesman Charlie Peek. “When we sat down and talked about how we would like a really nice park in this area it included this property. We would consider the rezoning of that property as an impediment to us putting a state park in Guilford County that we would like to see and that the people deserve.” Supporters of the park, who packed the chamber of the Old County Courthouse on Aug. 8, were unable to persuade the planning board to vote down the rezoning. “I wish to convey the notion that the state park will do infinitely more for Guilford County, ecologically and economically, than this or any subdivision,” said environmentalist Jack Jezorek. “It is clear that such developments, fifteen miles or more from city center, do not pay for themselves. I submit that the state park will do much more for Guilford’s bottom line. The tourism and recreational enterprises that spring up around the state parks bring huge economic benefits. “The land has been well cared for by the present caretakers and native Americans for thousands of years before them,” he added. “This land is sacred and it was given to us to care for and preserve.” (Disclosure: The writer serves with Jezorek on the steering committee of St. Mary’s House Episcopal/Anglican Center.) Opponents have 15 days to appeal the planning board’s decision, in which case it will be considered by the county commission. Peek said the state has not given up on acquiring the property, and would like to be involved in discussions with the county, Blue-Green Corp., and landowner Thaxton Richardson. Peek said Richardson has never allowed the state to appraise the property, which would be the first step toward arranging a sale. Blue-Green Corp. has offered to give the state 100 acres of property, including a section of wetlands running along the north bank of the river and a corridor along a feeder creek that would connect Northern Elementary to the Haw River, Peek said. The company has also offered to sell the state a separate 60-acre tract for $6 million. Peek added that the ribbon of land along the north bank of the river would provide poor linkage between the park’s isolated parcels. “Much of it is wetlands,” he said. “We have reservations about whether it would be truly useful as a year-round trail connection.” Opponents also called attention to Blue-Green Corp.’s environmental track record. The company was fined thousands of dollars by the state Division of Water Quality in 2006 for clogging two creeks in rural Chatham County with sediment after a heavy rain picked up dirt from the Chapel Ridge subdivision while it was under construction. “What they should have done is do a more timely job with the application of their groundcover,” said John Holley, chief engineer for the Raleigh office of the Division of Land Quality, which took separate enforcement action against the company. “And they should not have converted their sediment ponds [to permanent stormwater ponds] so early in the process. And they had a big rain event. They just had things a little out of sequence.” Opponents took umbrage at Blue-Green Corp.’s offer to sell the state some of the land. “I resent the state being held hostage to their extraordinary high value of property,” said Robert Cook, a resident of Browns Summit, “while we, the citizens of Guilford County and the state of North Carolina, are not given any consideration of wildlife, education, environment and safety of the water supply.” Blue-Green Corp. came to the hearing accompanied by a small detachment of engineers and environmental consultants whose presentation was coordinated by Henry Isaacson, a prominent Greensboro lawyer known for skillful representation of developers seeking rezoning actions from the county commission and the Greensboro City Council. Isaacson argued that as a unified development, Patriot Landing would place less strain on county infrastructure and minimize pollution to the watershed than other options that “would surely be nothing more than hodge-podge development.” “He added, “Another alternative would be a tract-home development, simply a sea of homes for as far as the eye can see.” Only two board members raised concerns about the development. One of them, Joe Wood, asked, “What’s to keep six hundred and sixty-one homeowners from fertilizing their lawns – everyone thinks their front lawn should look like the Taj Mahal – and it ultimately ending up in some gigantic nutrient bloom downstream in Jordan Lake…. Someone is going to drink that downstream.” Opponents grew restive as it became apparent how the vote would go. Chairman Larry Proctor, who voted to approve the rezoning, had to gavel the meeting to order after cries of derision issued from the gallery. “If you would come to these meetings and see these developments, it’s no concern,” he said. “Blue-Green cares about the environment. You can see it in the volume of materials they gave us. I wish you could see the quality of development versus what you could be getting. I’m happy with what I’m seeing. I’m comfortable with what I see.” Another board member who favored the rezoning, Jeffrey Deal, suggested that the state should have acted faster to acquire the property. “I admire what you folks are trying to do,” he said, “but unless you’ve got a prospective buyer to step up to the plate and be proactive, I suggest that you redirect your ire.”

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