Undeveloped Guilford tracts could be used for trails

by Jordan Green

Undeveloped Guilford tracts could be used for trails John Young, a retired furniture-store owner guided, his Volkswagen Passat station wagon down James Doak Parkway, an easterly route studded with spacious houses built of fieldstone and brick with multiple gables, ample breezeways and rounded windows. The faux chateaus fanned across the landscape north of Greensboro. “The intention of the developers was to connect this to Church Street, but our acquisition is going to stop that,” Young said.

The property in question is currently owned by the Morton family, which donated the land for the Grandfather Mountain nature preserve near Boone and whose late patriarch Hugh Morton was a renowned photographer. Together with an adjacent tract owned by the Richardson family, heir to the Vicks VapoRub wealth, it comprises a natural corridor reaching up from Greensboro’s northern lakes to Northern Elementary on NC Highway 150 East. From there, planners would like to see a trail connect with Haw River State Park. The consolidated local trails would comprise a section of the state of North Carolina’s nascent Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Young, who chairs the Guilford County Open Space Committee, stopped his car at the end of a side street where the forest abuts the new housing developments, and popped the hatch to retrieve “blaze orange” vests to protect his party from hunters who might mistake the rustle of leaves for deer. The hikers included the Rev. Tom Droppers, a retired Episcopal priest who does supply work in Greensboro, and this reporter. “Can’t get enough, can you?” joked a resident to Young, who was eager to get into the woods. “I’m going to take you to two of the prettiest trees in Guilford County,” Young said. “These are some real monarchs of the forest.” We hiked through oaks, hickories and beeches before coming upon two grand willow oaks at what Young reckoned to be an old home site. The willow oaks retained their green leaves even as the foliage of the other hardwoods had faded from brilliance to the color of rust. Multiple branches sprang from their trunks like knobby and muscular limbs.

Crae Morton, the land’s current owner, said the willow oaks might have served as shade for livestock kept by his great-grandfather, a psychiatrist from Indiana. “My grandmother grew up on that property,” Morton said, “and between the hardwood stands, the creeks, the wildlife, the diversity of plants in the underbrush, it’s just a special place and we were so excited to have this opportunity to work with the Guilford County Open Space Committee on this property because it preserves this special piece of land, and it allows other people to enjoy it.” Young led the way down a gentle slope to a wide swath of wetlands where beavers had gnawed a tree, but felled it away from the stream where it was intended to make a dam. A great blue heron fluttered in the distance. As a second career, Young is building a nature-guide business called Reunion With Nature. After retiring from the furniture business, he began devoting much of his time to environmental and social justice causes, which spring from his Quaker spirituality. He attends New Garden Friends Meeting, which was founded in 1754 and predates the incorporation of Greensboro. “We have a picture of people meeting in the woods in 1749,” he said. “That would have made a great Quaker meeting, sitting on a log.” As we returned to the car, Young picked up a pair of wild turkey feathers and examined them, before tossing them onto the leaf-strewn forest floor. Young and his colleagues view the current economic downturn as a prime opportunity to acquire land for public recreational use and nature conservation. With much private development on hold, buyers are in a position to negotiate favorable prices.

“There is immense development pressure on tracts like these, that are few and far between,” Young said. “To be able to put together 443 contiguous acres is really something. We’ve even been contacted by developers trying to see if we’d be interested in buying land. It’s a great time to acquire property.” The state readily agreed to purchase the Morton property, which is being offered at a 25-percent discount, from funds allocated to the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund by the General Assembly last year, said Sue Regier, who heads the state parks system’s land protection program. Regier said the state views the Morton property, which the state has placed under contract for $2.8 million, as a “keystone” for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The Morton family would like to close the deal in the next couple months. When complete, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will run from Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. The future trail grid from Haw River State Park and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail could also extend to downtown Greensboro, if and when the city completes a longpromised conversion of discontinued rail line along Battleground Avenue that forms a spoke off of the hub that is the planned downtown greenway. More immediately, the open space committee is advocating that Guilford County purchase the Richardson property for $2.6 million — at 60 percent of its appraised value — from a $20 million Parks and Open Space bond approved by voters in 2004. Because part of the Richardson property includes watershed for Lake Townsend, Greensboro’s water supply, Young said he expects the county to be reimbursed with $1.3 million from the state Clean Water Trust Fund, whittling down the cost to county taxpayers to $1.3 million. State officials and open-space committee members view the two properties as pieces of a puzzle that must be fit together to create a continuous network of parkland for hikers. The Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission has approved the acquisition of the Richardson property, and the matter goes before the county commission for vote on Dec. 11. Young is confident that his group has the votes lined up to approve the acquisition. Open space committee members have quietly lobbied commissioners, arguing the merits of preserving natural habitat, expanding recreational opportunities and

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Guilford County Open Space Committee Chairman John Young inspects his camera next to a tree gnawed by beavers on the Richardson property north of Lake Townsend outside of Greensboro. (photos by Jordan Green)