Supporters mobilize for state park as vote approaches

by Amy Kingsley

Charles Hansen, a resident of northern Guilford County, sat silently at a table scattered with unsigned form letters on Sept. 13. Meanwhile, the neighbors surrounding him composed personal messages and added their signatures to the pages that would be sent to the members of the Guilford and Rockingham county commissions.

“I’ve already sent e-mails to all the commissioners,” he said by way of explanation.

In his e-mails, Hansen urged the commissioners to overturn a planning board decision allowing Boca Raton-based developer Blue-Green Corp. to build hundreds of high-end houses on property the state wants to set aside for its newest state park. Hansen, who moved to Guilford County from southeast Texas 20 years ago, said he would like to see the county preserve the unspoiled territory surrounding the Haw River.

“We don’t have [a state park],” he said. “It would offer something that’s of benefit to all. We already have plenty of high-end development in Guilford County, but something like this provides for all people regardless of their economic status.”

The letter-writing campaign is one part of the strategy park supporters are employing to advance their cause. The group that organized the evening’s information meeting at Gethsemane United Methodist Church formed in the wake of the planning board defeat. Founders of the group, Citizens For Haw River State Park, have already planted their yard signs in front of several of the houses that dot this remote stretch of Church Street.

Kyle and Pam Klimek chose the site of the inaugural public meeting because in the church’s recent history it also served as the site of Blue-Green’s presentation to neighbors.

In that meeting, the company unveiled plans to build 755 homes and a private golf course on a 569-acre tract straddling Guilford and Rockingham counties. The company also wants to construct a private water treatment plant that would draw water from the Haw River.

Lisa McHenry, who used to work in the outdoor education program when the Episcopal Diocese owned the Haw River State Park, said she’s worried about the impact the water treatment plant would have on wildlife. If the macroscopic organisms disappear, it will disrupt the entire food chain, she said. Right now, the fledgling park hosts a vibrant ecosystem.

“We have a mating pair of beaver that are doing some amazing work,” she said. “We have wood ducks, a large roost for great heron with about twenty to twenty-five nests, deer and, well, muskrats.”

Children who visit the state park are encouraged to discover some of the more overlooked animal species that thrive in the Haw’s waters. Students, armed with mesh dippers, head down to the shores where they fish for tiny invertebrates. Employees take the organisms and place them on overhead projectors so the kids can get a better look.

“Most children know more about the animals in Africa than they do about the ones in their own back yard,” McHenry said.

Having a state park in Guilford County might help change that, she said. But if Blue-Green is allowed to build its development, the state’s plans for the Haw River State Park would probably wither on the vine, jeopardizing the outdoor education program.

“The program would basically be destroyed,” she said.

The Thursday evening event – part rally, part strategy session and part community social – drew more than 50 people, most of them from the area. State park supporters honed their message in preparation for next month’s showdown at the Guilford County Commission.

“Don’t appear to be anti-development,” John Young said. “We’re pro-state park, not anti anything.”

“There are all kinds of places in Guilford County to build nice new houses,” added David Craft. “But there is only one place to put this park.”

Up until the Aug. 8 planning board decision, there had been strong political support for the Haw River State Park at all levels of government. Both the Rockingham and Guilford County commissions had drafted resolutions supporting the state park. Guilford County citizens authorized a bond to acquire open space. And, in 2003 the state authorized the creation of the park and purchased the initial parcel of land from the Episcopal Diocese.

Without the Blue-Green land, the park won’t be able to provide facilities for camping, hiking, fishing or picnicking, supporters said.

Citizens for Haw River State Park are fighting a two-front battle. If they can reverse the rezoning in either Guilford or Rockingham County, Blue-Green’s development plans will be scuttled. Most of the houses – and tax base – will be located in Guilford County. Only 17 lots and the water treatment facility are planned for Rockingham County. Nonetheless, the development could draw up to 100,000 gallons of water a day from Rockingham, according to supporters. Because Rockingham County stands to gain relatively little from the development – and because the county has already supported the Mayo River State Park – some supporters said the commission might be more likely than Guilford to overturn the rezoning.

Right now, the Haw River park supporters’ main goal is to raise awareness among the residents of both counties and drum up the support of community leaders. Despite the healthy turnout on Thursday, that might be an uphill battle, Hansen said.

“I doubt if one in fifty people in Guilford County even know where the Haw River is,” he said. “Fewer than that have ever seen it. There’s nothing for people to relate to. Maybe if they’d called it the Guilford County State Park it might make people stop and think.”

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