Rural residents fight Heart of Triad plan

by Amy Kingsley

Fern Hill and Dogwood Farms are neighbors on the steep, red clay banks of the Deep River. Visitors would be hard pressed to find a more idyllic space anywhere in the shrinking patch of land between High Point, Winston-Salem and Greensboro than this property on the border of Guilford and Forsyth counties.

Poplar, oak, dogwood and pine trees give way to tracts of feed crops and grazing animals. Development consists mostly of rambling family estates and weather-beaten outbuildings encircled by low fencing.

One visitor, agriculture extension agent Wick Wickliffe, paused at Marianne and Rafe Royle’s house on the evening of April 5 on his way an appointment with strawberry farmers panicked at the prospect of a late-season frost. Before departing on his berry rescue mission, Wickliffe addressed more than a dozen people gathered at the Royle’s house. What they wanted was a solution to a problem more fundamental than fragile crops or bad weather; they sought Wickliffe’s guidance in saving their very way of life.

Residents of the area off Sandy Ridge Road, led in large part by Cathy Poole, have been exploring ways to maintain their rural lifestyle in the face of perceived pressure from development interests involved in the Heart of the Triad. Their farms, houses and fields occupy the bullseye of a mixed-use development project conceived by politicians and businessmen eager to capitalize on the area’s prime location between the Dell factory in Winston-Salem and Fed Ex hub in Greensboro.

But the residents aren’t going down without a fight.

“You can either be a Barney Fife and go out with one bullet,” Wickliffe said, “or you can have your guns loaded.”

Two of the ways these neighbors plan to fight the project are with conservation easements and voluntary agricultural districts. Wickliffe discussed the latter, which is a non-binding designation for farmland. Greg Messinger, a land protection specialist at the Piedmont Land Conservancy, offered information about conservation easements, a legal contract available to landowners who don’t want their property developed.

Neither designation would protect the farmers against their worst fear: A new road, four lanes wide with sidewalks, projected to run north to south right across the place where Poole’s horse pen now stands. Eminent domain, when governments buy property for public works projects, overrides both the easement and voluntary designation.

“Their plan is literally going to wipe us off the map,” Poole said.

Brent McKinney, the executive director of Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART), the agency overseeing Heart of the Triad planning efforts, said HOT is less a plan at this stage than a concept. And, because it is a concept, he said he couldn’t predict which residents might be affected.

“I can’t overemphasize that there are no specifics or definites in the plan,” McKinney said.

That does not reassure Poole, who said she thinks McKinney and PART are just trying to avoid providing solid information to residents. Poole complained that residents had been left out of the planning process, a charge McKinney denied.

“When you look at this concept,” he said, “you see exactly what the people wanted.”

Heart of the Triad does not reflect the future Poole imagined for her land. She and her neighbors have seen some encroachment by residential development, but most of the houses have been large, single family dwellings on large lots. Her new neighbors have not altered her quality of life in the same way that the dense, New Urbanism-style developments favored by the Heart of the Triad steering committee would, she said.

“This development, I really can’t complain,” Poole said. “It’s lower density, single family houses.”

What irks local governments about this type of development, Poole said, is its relatively low tax base. Greed is the motivating factor behind the Heart of the Triad project, she said. Heart of the Triad steering committee co-chairs Robbie Perkins, a former Greensboro city councilman, and Arnold King both work in real estate, and several developers sit on the board.

The residents have found allies in the NC General Assembly. Republican state Rep. Larry Brown of Winston-Salem has vowed to block efforts to expedite highway funds for the Heart of the Triad.

“I don’t have any problem with municipalities doing long-range planning,” Brown said. “But here they’ve got commercial real-estate developers making the plans.”

The original steering committee for the Heart of the Triad did not include any residents of the area that would be affected. But it did include representatives from Duke Power, Time Warner and BB&T, the three companies that donated the most money to fund the project. Residents and landowners – those without $50,000 to buy a seat at the table, Poole said – were left out of early discussions.

The Heart of the Triad steering committee petitioned the General Assembly for $1.5 million in funding, an amount earmarked by Sen. Katie Dorsett, a Greensboro Democrat, in an appropriations bill. Brown and Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro promised to vote against the funding. In fact, both legislators said they were concerned that PART might have overstepped its authority as a transportation agency by wading into land-use.

“What I’m getting ready to do is ask for an audit,” Brown said. “Heart of the Triad used $200,000 given to PART for an air quality study. They need to spend that money getting more people to ride the bus.”

Harrison said she thought the $200,000 is supposed to be spent devising ways to bring the Piedmont Triad into attainment with the EPA’s air quality guidelines.

“I’m not really sure how doing more development is supposed to make the air cleaner,” she said.

The reason McKinney said the Heart of the Triad project would make the air cleaner is that it will combine Research Triangle Park-style economic development with residential construction.

“Most folks will tell you about the success of Research Triangle Park,” McKinney said. “But from a transportation point of view it’s a nightmare. Everyone who works there has to drive there.”

It is this connection between development and transportation that McKinney uses to justify PART’s involvement with the Heart of the Triad project. He said he doesn’t like the kind of development he’s seen happening in Colfax and off Sandy Ridge Road, mostly large houses that use well water and septic tanks.

“To the land owners in the Heart of the Triad who want to live there and enjoy their current quality of life, I would say just do that as long as you can,” McKinney said.

Perkins is as apocalyptic as the property owners when he ruminates on what the area will be like without implementation of Heart of the Triad.

“The worst case scenario is for us to just leave it alone,” Perkins said. “If you leave it alone, the area will be an urban-sprawl case study.”

Perkins said neither he nor his company, NAI Piedmont Triad, stand to gain directly from developing the Heart of the Triad, although he did say that all businesses in the area would benefit by the addition of better jobs.

“If they want to sell their land,” Perkins said, “family farmers can make that choice for themselves. There is no conspiracy here to take their farms away.”

McKinney said a new steering committee would be appointed in the future and the 28 seats would include two property owners. The future prosperity of the community depends on the approval of the Heart of the Triad, Perkins said.

“Why do I support this plan?” Perkins said. “Is it self-interest? No. Is it because I want the region to thrive? Yes. Will it be devastating for the economy of this region if it doesn’t happen? It will be.”

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