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Land Grab

by Jordan Green

Fred Boateng, a senior planner in the Greensboro Planning Department, possesses a jocular personality. Exchanges between him and his colleagues on the third floor of the Melvin Municipal Building are quick-witted and good-natured. Boateng has been known to bring his young daughter back to work from daycare if he’s working late, and her exuberant outbursts provide amusement in the office.

By Monday, June 2, the planning department had completed original zoning proposals for property scheduled for annexation at the end of the month. The annexations had already been approved by the city council in November and April and approving the zonings would be a routine part of the process, but the city still expected county residents affected by annexation to turn out in force; the planning department had been deluged with phone calls.

Around noon, Boateng took a call from William Marshburn, a resident of Long Valley Road, a community on the northwestern city’s northwestern fringe. The city planner switched the phone speaker on as the caller became increasingly agitated. “You’re a corporation, is that right?” Marshburn said. “I don’t appreciate it when you come on my property and assess fees.”

At one point, Boateng responded, “Don’t shoot me, sir.”

Marshburn ended the call abruptly, and Boateng laughed loudly but with a hint of unease.

“You’re pissing people off, Fred,” one of his female colleagues quipped.

Later, Planning Manager Rawls Howard stepped into Boateng’s office and placed a call to building security.

“A caller just told my senior planner: “I’m going to shoot your city council members,'” he said. “That’s a direct quote.”

The next day the 57-year old Marshburn turned up outside city council chambers after receiving a warning from police to stay away from the meeting and cursed three police detectives, according to a magistrate’s order. Marshburn was charged with communicating threats and public disturbance.

Planning Director Dick Hails said Marshburn had complained that in the next several years the city will force him to abandon his well and septic system, and hook into the city’s water and sewer service.

“We’ve been talking to a number of property owners in this area where their wells and septic systems work fine,” Hails said. “They’re being annexed, and this means that they’re at some time going to have to be connected to city water and sewer. There’s a lot of anger.”

Greensboro’s move to expand its geographic footprint falls at a time when resistance is mounting against municipal annexation across the state, and against a North Carolina statute passed in 1959 that gives county residents little recourse against cities intent on increasing their populations and tax bases. State lawmakers have introduced bills proposing local annexation moratoriums to hem in the city of Salisbury’s growth in Rowan County and to halt Wilmington’s march in New Hanover County. A bipartisan bill introduced last month to impose a statewide moratorium until June 30, 2009 is being considered by the House Judiciary II Committee.

Annexation opponents in Guilford County have already won a modest victory. On April 1, residents of the Mount Hope Church Road area near McLeansville persuaded the Greensboro City Council to delay annexation of the Laurel Park and Whitehurst Village subdivisions for at least another year. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, a commercial real estate broker who heads NAI Piedmont Triad, and Dianne Bellamy-Small, the District 1 representative, were the lone holdouts. Parading before the rostrum, the residents raised several troubling questions.

A former employee of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and New Mexico transplant who said he was on disability hinted darkly about his American dream being snatched away and declared that he had lost faith in the federal government. A New Jersey woman said that following the death of her husband, she struggled to make house payments and then tried unsuccessfully to put her home back on the market. Another man said he had suddenly found himself unemployed.

The two subdivisions, which were carved out of the Piedmont forest in the late 1990s and early 2000s and thrown up by the nation’s largest homebuilder, DR Horton, have not escaped unscathed from the unfolding foreclosure crisis. The Laurel Park home of Redman and Michelle Caldwell went on the pubic auction block at the Guilford County Courthouse in April after the couple defaulted on a loan from Lehman Brothers Bank.

Annexing the two subdivisions and doubling property taxes would present a hardship to residents who are retired, disabled, unemployed or otherwise dependent on fixed incomes, the homeowners argued.

The vote against annexing Laurel Park and Whitehurst Village came after council voted in November to roll in 4,467 acres and more than 10,000 residents in a city-initiated process. The two subdivisions near McLeansville and 37 other parcels, in contrast, ended up being considered for annexation because property owners had requested annexation in exchange for hookup to the city’s water and sewer system. Sort of.

Associated Developers of Newport News, Va. filed annexation petitions for Whitehurst Village and Laurel Park in 1997 and 2000 before DR Horton built the houses, and residents said no one told them at closing that their home purchase made them a party to a binding agreement to accept annexation. One Whitehurst Village resident named Lyle Cunningham later learned that the lawyer who closed the sale of his house on behalf of DR Horton was disbarred for defrauding the homebuilder of $802,185. McCormick is currently serving an 11-year sentence at a state prison for embezzlement.

It would take a conscientious lawyer or a scrupulous homebuilder to alert the buyers to the agreement. Deeds for homes purchased from DR Horton provide only an obscure reference to the annexation petition: “This conveyance is… made subject to any easements, restrictions and rights of way of record, if any, and to ad valorem taxes for the current year as they apply.”

Messages to the company’s spokeswoman were not returned before the deadline for this story. Requests for comment from Associated Developers also went unanswered.

The residents also raised the question of whether the city could afford to extend police protection to the Mount Hope Church Road area. The police department estimates it will need an additional 31 sworn officers to provide adequate coverage for all the areas slated to be folded into the city on June 30.

“We’re understaffed when it comes to police,” District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells said. “The police unit that serves eastern Greensboro, that division, is understaffed, and we have been dealing with that in the eastern part of the city already. I hear the concerns of citizens because they will be taxed, and then we will be strained because we don’t have enough for the area that I live in…. We will promise, and can we really deliver?”

A YES! Weekly investigation found that Greensboro has extended water, sewer or some combination of the two services to developments outside the city limits for areas covering at least 3,500 acres in exchange for a request for annexation that the city may execute at a time of its choosing. More than half of those petitions were filed prior to the construction and sale of new homes by developers, homebuilders or property owners trying to make their land more suitable for development. That arrangement has bound new homeowners to an agreement to accept annexation at a later and unspecified date.

Measured by acreage, the largest petition was filled by the pension fund for the firefighters and police officers of Tampa, Fla. for 1,659 acres at the Rock Creek development. The development near Sedalia straddles the Greensboro-Burlington water-sewer boundary. Other petitioners in the Rock Creek area include Greensboro-based Pierce Homes of Carolina, and manufacturers Medi, Rodico and Crescent Sleep Products. The Weaver Investment Co., Greensboro real-estate company with roots in the mid-20th century rental apartment boom, filed an annexation petition in 1997 for 132 acres at Stoney Creek, an exclusive subdivision built around an 18-hole championship golf course.

In the mid-1990s, Richard Grubar, then a Weaver employee and Greensboro City Council member, successfully pushed the city to adopt the annexation petition, which states: “In consideration of the availability of public water or sanitary sewer, or both, provided by the city, in addition to those considerations otherwise required by law, the owners hereby petition the city council of the city of Greensboro for voluntary annexation into the corporate limits of the city.”

Retired president Mike Weaver said his company spent about $4 million running sewer lines out to Stoney Creek in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so the new annexation ordinance was like “someone holding a gun to your head.”

Weaver and Lee McAllister, the current president and CEO, said the company takes care to inform prospective homebuyers of the annexation request.

“What we had starting in 1997 was an agreement that each homeowner signed that said that they understood that an agreement with the city had been signed saying they would not opposed annexation,” McAllister said. “It referenced a letter from the city to the developer.”

Since 1997, annexation petitions for major residential subdivisions in the county have been filed by national homebuilders such as DR Horton, K. Hovnanian and Portrait Homes, alongside local developers like as Roy Carroll II, Gregory A. Stakias and David B. Michaels.

Questioned by city council members at the April 1 meeting about the agreements contested by the Laurel Park and Whitehurst Village residents, acting City Attorney Becky Jo Peterson-Buie provided an answer that might have come from a magical realism novel.

“In these particular matters the people all signed a petition to receive water and sewer service,” she said. “In consideration of receiving the water and sewer service, the contract indicates that they agree that they will not contest an annexation at the time that the city of Greensboro deems it appropriate to bring them inside the city limits. That’s the difference…. In other words, they’ve asked, or they’ve agreed that they want to come into the city in exchange for receiving the benefit of water and sewer service.”

District 4 Councilman Mike Barber interjected: “Or their developer. Not them individually.”

Cathy Heath, co-chair of the Stop NC Annexation Coalition, said other North Carolina cities such as Cary are moving towards mandatory annexation ordinances that avoid the confusion engendered when developers request annexation and then years later homeowners find themselves blindsided when the city decides to pull the trigger.

“I think anyone that’s buying property out in the country that has municipal-supplied water and sewer, they need to double check,” Heath said. “If there’s not strong enough full-disclosure laws so that they know this house comes with an agreement to annex, that’s a concern. There should be some recourse for those people. They’re going to buy that house. They’re going to set their budget: “This is how much taxes I’m going to have to pay. These are my expenses.’ And then that rug is going to be pulled out from them. That’s going to be a difficult financial hurdle, devastating for some.”

Even annexation opponents agree that there was nothing illegal about the real-estate transactions.

“There’s the law and there’s what’s fair,” said Richard Browne, a Winston-Salem lawyer hired to advise the Laurel Park and Whitehurst Village residents. “The law says when the developer filed the annexation petition with the city, that was for all the world to see. The law said when they bought their house, they had notice. In practice, they didn’t. The realtors didn’t notify them, and they didn’t ask. They had no reason to think they would be annexed.”

In practice, even if information about the annexation petition is included in the closing documents, the homebuyer might not know what they’ve agreed to.

“I know when we do real estate closings, people come in, they smile, they sign documents,” said Barber, a real estate lawyer and councilman. “We say a few things about their interest rate, and they go on out the door. And we give them a big envelope with paper. Nobody ever touches it or reads it. So I am very sensitive to the fact if nobody tells you, there’s no reason to know. That’s a real difficulty that is hard to swallow.”

Julius McLaughlin, a licensed realtor who sold part of his farm on Young’s Mill Road to Trinity Lake Corp. of London in 2002, agreed.

“I think the people who live out of town, unless they were informed enough to ask the real estate agent, probably didn’t know,” he said.

McLaughlin and his wife bought their farm in the mid-1980s when land was cheap. The gently rolling hills and woods swaddling area lakes made it attractive property, though not real estate coveted by most developers, who neglected the southeastern Guilford farmland beyond Greensboro’s poorest and blackest quadrant in favor of Battleground Avenue, the Cardinal and other areas to the west and north.

Trinity Lake Corp. folded part of the McLaughlin farm into the new Trinity Lake development. With houses built by K. Hovnanian Homes starting at around $250,000, its resident include police officers and sheriff’s deputies, with a large percentage of blacks but a healthy representation of white residents too. Residency confers boating and fishing privileges at the lake, in addition to access to a clubhouse, recreational pool and tennis courts.

“I think this one is going to be [annexed] next,” McLaughlin said, adding that he gathered the impression after speaking to a former member of Greensboro Zoning Commission, whom he declined to identify.

“I’ve talked to some of the neighbors,” said the realtor, who held onto a portion of the farm to build his home. “A lot of them came from Maryland and New Jersey. If a person asked you, you’d bring it up, but you’re not going to just tell them because you’re not going to push the issue. How often is somebody going to volunteer that information? You don’t know exactly when annexation is going to come, and that’s telling the truth. If someone asks, I say, “Yes, it’s one mile from the city limits.’ History says, “Yes, you will be annexed.'”

Cheap property in recent decades, big houses, North Carolina’s famously temperate climate, room to cut new subdivisions and golf courses out of the Piedmont woodlands, not to mention low property taxes – all of these factors have drawn new residents from the Northeast. In 2006, North Carolina overtook New Jersey as the 10th largest state in the union, and the Garden State supplied many of the migrants.

“I moved here from New Jersey in 2004,” Laurel Park resident Ann Castagna told the city council in April, wiping away tears. “My husband, we moved down here because he was sick. We needed to get into the better climate and for a lot of other reasons. We moved into that house four years ago. Things are a lot cheaper here in North Carolina than they are in New Jersey. Especially taxes. What happened was two years ago my husband passed away. So here I am left with what you people call “big house.’ Which is too big for me alone. And one salary coming in. And my boss is here. He can verify that my salary’s not so great.”

Many of the Laurel Park residents suggested the city cherry-picked them for annexation to address its budget problems by targeting their relatively high-value homes. Yet no one argues that annexation is an effective means of generating revenue.

“You’re looking a extending services in a logical pattern,” Deputy City Manager Bob Morgan told YES! Weekly last fall. “In the long run you want a break-even situation, but in some areas revenues exceed expenditures, and in some areas expenditures exceed revenues. Overall, it should even out. In the first couple years, it’s not unusual to come out behind.”

Barber suggested a more fundamental motive: defending Greensboro’s third place in the state’s population rankings.

“There are a number of areas that create status,” he said. “For cities and regions, one is wealth and one is population. It’s important [for cities to expand] for so many reasons. Any city that, like Detroit, is declining in population begins to develop an undesirable reputation. We want to maintain our status as the third largest city in North Carolina. We don’t want to be surpassed by Wilmington and Fayetteville.”

Assistant Chief Gary Hastings acknowledged that the city’s annexation of 207 acres in the McLeansville area beyond the Urban Loop is likely to strain the police department

“Obviously, travel time is a concern for us,” he said. “If an officer gets out there and needs assistance, it takes awhile to get there. We’re short-staffed and we have manpower issues now…. It does challenge our resources, just in distance alone.”

The department will have to move police officers over to patrol, primarily in the Cardinal area, and backfill their existing duties by ramping up over-time hours, Hastings said.

Patrol officers complain about travel time, but Greensboro has pursued leap-frog annexation course since the early part of the decade, and the city footprint has become increasingly elongated over the years.

A glance at the city map shows the Reedy Fork area between Lake Townsend and US Highway 29 looking something like an arm extended in a slam-dunk while areas along McKnight Mill Road remain undeveloped; the natural frontier of east Greensboro fizzling out with a row of Habitat for Humanity houses for immigrant beneficiaries at Shirley Lane while the city crawls eastward on Interstate 85-40 about four miles beyond the Urban Loop; the Cardinal and areas along US Highway 68 practically encircling Piedmont Triad Airport while the airport itself remains exempt as part of an outmoded neutrality agreement with the city of Winston-Salem; and Adams Farm protruding beyond the Urban Loop in the southwest and the noncontiguous Grandover menacing High Point like an armada creeping down Interstate 85, while vast areas within the Urban Loop in the county’s southeast quadrant remain unincorporated.

The major satellite-annexation move in the past decade took place in the McLeansville area, the fallout of a turf battle rooted in county residents’ desire to keep their taxes low.

“There was a little bit of a defensive move with respect to incorporation by McLeansville,” said Alec McIntosh, the city’s subdivision planning manager. “At one point there was a proposal rattling around the state legislature to incorporate an area half as big as Greensboro. When we processed annexation petitions out there, that was to protect our ability to grow eastward and to protect ourselves against McLeansville incorporating.”

The Young’s Mill Road area, including Trinity Lake, Gramercy Park, Lochwood, Thorpe Square and Candace Ridge, would seem to be a prime candidate for annexation. YES! Weekly found an estimated 341 acres of land in the area covered by unexecuted annexation petitions. In comparison, unexecuted annexation petitions in the Mount Hope Church Road area near McLeansville cover only an estimated 204 acres.

“The reason the annexation of those hasn’t rolled yet is because of fire service,” McIntosh said. “I think once the fire station in the Mount Hope Church Road is built the fire department will make some runs over there to see if the response time is good…. I can’t tell you, “Yes, we definitely will roll some of those petitions in the next year,’ or, “No, we definitely won’t.'”

McIntosh said interest in development around Mount Hope Church Road outpaces that in the Young’s Mill Road area, although both are growing at a fast clip.

“There are lots of inquiries on tracts within striking distance of that Mount Hope Church Road-I-85 interchange,” he said. “People calling up water resources and asking, “What would it take to get water to such and such a tract?’ You take a combination of what has occurred and an indication of what’s coming, and it’s substantial in both locations, but it’s more substantial in the Mount Hope Church Road area.”

The city has made no effort to calculate whether investing in a fire station in the Young’s Mill area to provide an incentive for more compact development would pay off with more efficient provision of police, maintenance and garbage and recycling pickup services.

“The very best thing for cities is tight contiguous growth,” City Manager Mitchell Johnson said. “Other cities are more regulatory than Greensboro. We’re somewhat laissez faire.”

The only infrastructure investment the city makes to encourage compact growth is a subsidy to developers to upsize and add sewer and water service whose generosity is directly proportionate to the lines proximity to the city, Johnson said.

Cunningham, who moved to Whitehurst Village from rural Virginia and teaches at GTCC, takes a less than charitable view of Greensboro’s reach.

“They leapfrogged out here because of the tax base,” he said. “There’s a trailer park and an auto auction in between. None of that’s city. Why would they want that? We’re way out here. The city should grow out here. But they suckered us in with the water and the sewer.”

Joel Landau, an unsuccessful candidate for city council, has often found himself voting alone against annexation as a member of the city’s planning board.

“It’s such a drain in terms of providing services,” he said. “We’ve got to run the garbage trucks out there, and they’ve got to cover all these miles without any pickups. Same with the police…. It ties up valuable resources. As fuel prices continue to rise, as they likely will continue to do, it makes even less sense in terms of economics.”

Seven years in, it’s hard to imagine turning back the clock.

“It’s just a mess,” Landau said. “Once you’re out there, it makes sense to fill it in so you can provide services more efficiently. I think it’s a mistake that we annexed these outlying areas, and I hope we don’t compound it by annexing other outlying areas without first putting focus on compatible infill.”

Whatever the fate of proposed one-year annexation moratorium in the General Assembly, capacity crowds at legislative hearings in Raleigh and Asheville suggest a citizens’ revolt is underway. The repercussions could potentially realign local politics.

A precedent Greensboro council members can’t relish is one set by Wilmington in the 1990s. The city went on a growth binge, and then residents newly empowered to vote in municipal elections turned out a majority of the council and helped remove a city manager.

Cunningham, who describes himself as “way on the conservative side,” said: “I’m not above going out and finding new people to run for city council. I’ve got some contacts with the Southeast Neighborhood Coalition. There’s the [Greensboro] Neighborhood Congress. I can tell you that it will be a black woman.”

His neighbor in Laurel Park, Charlena Bradley-Banks, is one prospect.

“We’re a little dubious about her candidacy because she’s talking about going back to Washington, DC,” Cunningham said. “We’re going to keep looking. We’re going to pursue replacing Dianne Bellamy-Small.”

Bradley-Banks relocated with her husband to Greensboro when the US Postal Service moved a human relations department to North Carolina.

If she had it to do over again, she said she would buy a house within the city limits. The tax rate in the county is “so much lower than it was in Washington, DC,” she said. “And then if they raise our taxes, we would be paying about the same as we did in the DC area,” but without standard urban amenities. Bradley-Banks and her husband spent $345,000 on their home in Laurel Park; the same house in the Washington, DC area would have fetched a million dollars.

As Bradley-Banks spoke at the April 1 council meeting, Mayor Yvonne Johnson’s expression betrayed a look of mild distaste. Bradley-Banks displayed open contempt.

“If you do annex us, I will run for mayor and show you how a city is to be run, and not come to a meeting and say, “If you need me, please call,'” Bradley-Banks said. “Why come thirty or forty minutes to say that? What kind of politician do things like this? Maybe it’s just Greensboro.”

The woman’s impatience crashed up against the norms of civility and lassitude that characterize even the most testy of conflicts in Greensboro politics.

“We need policemen protection,” Bradley-Banks said, her voice striking like a hammer. “We need health services. We need libraries. We need fire department, shopping centers. We have none of that where I live. In the District of Columbia I could go each block. You will find a fire department. You will find health facilities. You will find stores, fire department, library and all of those things. And again, we don’t want to be part of Greensboro.”

She presented the city with its options, but to council members it may have not sounded like a choice at all.

“It’s a very difficult time, not only in Greensboro, the United States of America,” Bradley-Banks said. “The gas prices. The prices of home. So many people are losing their homes. And I really think it’s a shame and it’s a disgrace. So I leave it up to you guys, you politicians, to do what is right, and do what is just.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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