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Whose Heart of the Triad?

by Jordan Green

Carolyn Lane sat in the passenger seat of the pickup truck with the door open as her husband of 42 years, John, leaned over the bed and conversed with a friend, Ron James, in the parking lot of the Old 311 Curb Market at the settlement of Union Cross. The traffic came in a steady stream that made the car headlamps resemble something like lanterns strung down a conveyor belt as they moved along Union Cross Road a couple miles south of the new Dell computer assembly plant. The truck bed was full of plump tomatoes and ripe ears of corn, but John Lane seemed more intent on the pleasures of visiting than the opportunity to make a sale. It was about the end of the day, and also nearing the closing chapter of the Lanes’ life together in a section of rural Forsyth County ripe with real estate speculation and set squarely in the sites of transportation planners from Greensboro, High Point, Winston-Salem and Davidson County. “I think we may as well be resigned to it,” Carolyn Lane said. “I don’t think we’ll have our land much longer.” Her friend, Ron James, had already sold – to Hubert Parks, a Kernersville man who owns Chevrolet dealerships across the state. “I’m part Cherokee,” James said. “They killed all my buffalo, took my squaws and stole my land. They left me in a tepee so all I could do was beat my tom-tom.” The three of them laughed, but the bit about James being part Cherokee was true. The curb market will also soon vanish, but tonight one of its owners, Charlie Kearns, visited with his friends. That the road will be widened from two to four lanes is a certainty, said Kearns, who also coaches golf at nearby Glenn High School. The only question is whether he and his partners will sell or wait to see how much money condemnation proceedings would bring from the NC Department of Transportation. “We got Delled,” Carolyn Lane said. “That used to be the most beautiful place in Forsyth County.” She mentioned that wild animals were being sighted in the area with increased frequency. “A lady on Old Salem Road said she saw a bear,” Lane said. “They don’t have nowhere to go. It’s sad.” The clamor of interest by developers coupled with the studied attention of transportation planners, industrialists and elite civic leaders bears a name, and it is “Heart of the Triad” – acronym: HOT. Corporate underwriting from Duke Power, BB&T, Time-Warner Cable and Piedmont Natural Gas, along with funding by the NC Department of Transportation and the non-profit Piedmont Triad Partnership to the tune of $200,000 has produced a 44-page report by the Nebraska-based HDR consulting group that envisions a future city on 18,000 acres of land stretching from Union Cross in Forsyth County to Colfax in Guilford County and filling in the remaining undeveloped territory between Kernersville, Oak Ridge, Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem. The preferred land-use and transportation plan recommended by HDR calls for compact, mixed-use development that promotes walking, accommodates cyclists and features a mass transit connection to Winston-Salem and Greensboro by passenger rail. A meandering north-south parkway would snake through the area while a new east-west thoroughfare would parallel Interstate 40. An estimated 117,000 people would live in the new center city, and some 140,000 would work there. The southwest end of the area would develop around the nearly two-year-old Dell factory, while a new FedEx hub scheduled to open in the summer of 2009 at Piedmont Triad International Airport would create a commercial gravitational pull at the northeast end. The plan calls for about a third of the area to be preserved as open space, with commercial clusters for logistics and transportation, technology, retirement lifestyles and an “intellectual asset center” breaking up the landscape. Along with town centers and employment hubs, the plan envisions a major sports venue near the split between Interstate 40 and Interstate 40 Business, and one or two “retail/entertainment” districts. Conversations with residents who live within the footprint of the future Heart of the Triad indicate that many view the coming development with sad resignation. For others who anticipate cashing in on the land grab, development can’t come quickly enough. Still others who wish to maintain the rural character of their homes and farms have vowed to resist the plan, crying foul at the prominent role played by developers and realtors and championing conservation as the Triad’s highest calling. “Land use and transportation can’t be driven by developers and bankers,” said Cathy Poole, a medical office manager who raises horses at her farm on Squire Davis Road. “That’s a conflict of interest. It’s unethical and it should be illegal.” If opponents have come to view the Heart of the Triad as a conspiratorial effort by powerful self-interested elites bent on running them off their property by evading public accountability, it couldn’t have reassured them that the Guilford County Commission scheduled a public hearing after approving a resolution of continued support for the Heart of the Triad. Robbie Perkins, a tanned and resolute looking executive with the powerhouse commercial real estate brokerage NAI Piedmont Triad, stood at the podium facing the commission and defended the plan. A former Greensboro city councilman, Perkins once served on Greensboro’s transportation advisory committee, one of three multi-jurisdictional committees in the Triad with authority under federal law to plan new roads. Perkins stepped down from city council in 2005, but signaled his return from political retirement when he recently filed as a candidate for an at-large council seat. In the interim, Perkins had been serving as co-chair of the Heart of the Triad Steering Committee with a realtor from Kernersville named Arnold King. When Perkins stepped away, a livestock and produce farmer from Colfax named Jimmy Morgan took his place at the podium. He wore a pinstriped shirt with short sleeves tucked into black pants that emphasized a ramrod-stiff bearing. He pulled eyeglasses out of a case in his breast pocket and read from a prepared statement. “There seems to be a rush to push this plan rapidly to an implementation phase because it is clearly designed to rapidly develop remaining land for business and commercial uses to increase property tax revenue and benefit real estate companies and developers,” Morgan read, shoulders hunched and voice rising gradually. “Maybe this is why no citizens in the HOT area were allowed to serve on the HOT steering committee. We would slow and complicate this process.” Morgan questioned whether the ardor of the Heart of the Triad’s proponents was spurred by a desire to make an end-run around newly proposed state regulations that would limit nitrogen runoff in the Haw River watershed as he built towards a thematic crescendo in homage to the Jeffersonian ideal of democracy. “It is not a government’s responsibility to select winners and losers resulting from any decision it may make,” he said. “A government should not jeopardize its citizens’ welfare and lifestyles for the benefit of a selected few. In a representative form of government, power to govern is controlled and granted by its citizens to leaders through elections and not from the leaders to the people.” Cathy Poole also spoke at the hearing. As she is prone to do, she cited a March 2004 guest editorial by Perkins in The Business Journal of the Triad in March 2004. “Rather than purchasing any land at this time, local governments in the Triad could define the park by major roadways, work on land-use plans that would determine extension of utilities and use the considerable clout of the Guilford and Forsyth County legislative delegations to make the major roads happen faster,” Perkins had written, adding almost as an afterthought: “Besides, the major roads are already planned; we just want them built sooner to facilitate development and ‘set the table’ for FedEx.” Poole has pointed out that Perkins served on the Greensboro area’s transportation advisory committee. And if she and fellow opponents needed proof that the committees hold the authority to override decisions by local governing boards, it came in February when the High Point area transportation advisory committee voted to approve the High Point Thoroughfare Plan weeks after the Guilford County Commission rejected it. The thoroughfare plan features a major north-south roadway connecting Davidson County and its citizens to the jobs clustered around the airport. A “softer” version of that road could conceivably become the proposed Heart of the Triad Parkway. As residents struggle to hold on to farming traditions in rural Guilford and Forsyth counties, larger forces appear to be gathering. Regional planning efforts to urbanize areas like this might be considered a new iteration in an old American story of progress obliterating old things in its path and remaking the land according to new dictates. Like the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State or the freeways built by the autocratic Robert Moses that leveled neighborhoods wholesale in New York City, progress seems to be the handiwork of men – and some women – of domineering will, but also the product of impersonal forces that overwhelm human intentions. The fate of the 18,000 acres that make up the Heart of the Triad is a matter of concern not just for those who keep horses, raise beef cattle and grow organic vegetables for local farmers markets. There are the subdivisions of brick faux chateaus cropping up among the nurseries and horse farms – an expression of unplanned development. Then, too, there are the environmental advocates and industrialists, two groups pursuing clashing prerogatives, both of whom view the area as critical to their ends, not to mention the city mayors fretting about declining tax bases. The Southern Environmental Law Center calls on the Triad to reduce road capacity in outlying areas as a way to overcome the region’s Clean Air Act non-attainment status. “The Triad area has a choice,” a recent report by the group declares. “Continuing down the same road – unplanned growth, failure to provide meaningful transportation choices, and lack of regional coordination – leads to erosion of the area’s quality of life, serious public health impacts due to air pollution, and even the risk of losing federal highway funds. “At present, land use planning decisions in the Triad are made by a hodgepodge of local jurisdictions competing for economic development and other local priorities,” the report continues. “Local officials bear no responsibility for making decisions that are in the best interest of the Triad as a whole; for example, that a major new development project in a particular location is consistent with the region’s air quality goals.” The vision for the Triad held by environmentalists contrasts starkly with a blueprint touted by airport officials and industrialists. A new report commissioned by the Piedmont Triad Partnership positions the airport as the economic focal point of the Triad. The report by John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise in Chapel Hill, begins with this familiar portent: “The Piedmont Triad is at an economic crossroads. Low-wage global competition, combined with productivity increases in manufacturing, has stripped the region’s traditional clusters in furniture, textiles and tobacco manufacturing of tens of thousands of jobs since 2000. Although 36th in population size, the Piedmont Triad metropolitan area ranked 165th in 2005 among the nation’s 200 largest metro areas in terms of job and income growth.” Kasarda recommends accelerating productivity – by definition decreasing demand for labor – as a means of competing in the global marketplace. “To remain competitive, today’s industries require fast-cycle logistics,” he writes. “Manufacturers must be able to access regional, national and global networks of suppliers of materials, components and sub-assemblies in order to obtain the best-quality components at the lowest possible price.” The Triad, then, should build from its position as the Mid-Atlantic hub for FedEx. “Reflecting the new economy’s demands for connectivity, speed and agility, the Aerotropolis is optimized by corridor and cluster development, wide lanes, and fast movements along highways as well as good rail connectivity,” Kasarda writes. “While some such infrastructure development at or around PTI is likely decades away, the regional planning process needs to commence immediately.” The Kasarda report calls for coordination between the Aerotropolis and Heart of the Triad concepts, but the nascent alliance has already weathered strain. Airport officials teamed up with the Greensboro Partnership, the primary industrial development group in the city, to give city council members a tour of the airport area in July. The primary purpose of the junket was to emphasize their objections to a rezoning request that would allow Greensboro developer Roy Carroll to build condominiums on a tract of farmland near the airport. The airport officials and industrialists insisted that the land be reserved for a large industrial business able to make use of the nearby runways to ship and receive goods. The realtor for the property was NAI Maxwell. Perkins showed up at a zoning commission meeting in June to support the rezoning request but in the end it became clear that the council would side with the airport and the industrialists. Carroll e-mailed the council members on July 17 to withdraw his rezoning request. “I have given great thought to my pending case regarding the property I have under contract on Regional Road,” he wrote. “I believe in the fact that we need to introduce high-density residential around our job centers. This site would be an excellent opportunity to introduce growth of industry in that area; however, I also believe in Greensboro and my community. With that in mind, I feel it is essential to avoid any possible division over this issue in the community.” If elite power brokers have displayed something less than a united front in negotiating land use around the airport, publicity for the larger Heart of the Triad project has been greeted with marked skepticism by citizens of lesser clout. From the start, the composition of the Heart of the Triad steering committee has been a matter of controversy. “It was agreed to add three members representing the top contributors in the fundraising effort, a member of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority, a member of the Forsyth County Utilities Commission, and a member of the High Point Furniture Market Authority,” wrote Greensboro City Councilwoman Sandy Carmany, who also chairs the Greensboro transportation advisory committee, in a December 2005 blog post. “A request from a resident of the nearby area to have at least two residents on this committee was rejected by committee members, with the reasoning being that the elected officials serving on this committee already represent those interests.” “It was decided to appoint co-chairs, one from Forsyth and one from Guilford,” Carmany continued. “Former Greensboro City Councilmember Robbie Perkins and Kernersville Chamber of Commerce representative Arnold King were elected to those positions. There was quite a bit of discussion about both men being in the real estate development business, but both assured the group that they had no holdings in the area or conflicts of interest.” The steering committee also includes two representatives of six local governments surrounding the Heart of the Triad, and representatives from four area chambers of commerce. Carmany’s explanation of how membership was determined drew immediate criticism. “BB&T and Time-Warner stand to profit handsomely from development in the area,” wrote David Wharton, a Greensboro blogger with an interest in planning, preservation and architecture. “And what if the Heart of the Triad wants to do all-wireless networking (which seems like a very good idea)? Will Time-Warner oppose the move because they might lose RoadRunner broadband revenue? “And as to the idea of elected officials representing the citizens in the area,” Wharton continued, “well, they also represent the businesses.” A YES! Weekly analysis of campaign contributions to elected officials involved in the Heart of the Triad plan and regional transportation planning found little correlation between real estate and development companies with a present stake in the Heart of the Triad and those who supported candidates for political office. The analysis found only $20,340 in campaign contributions over a single election cycle from the individuals who work in the real estate and development sector to the eight elected officials appointed to the Heart of the Triad Steering Committee. In contrast, the nine members of the Greensboro City Council received a total of $37,987 over a comparable period of time. Campaign contributions from individuals tied to the real estate and development sector to elected officials who serve on the three transportation advisory committees in the region totaled $68,363: $42,113 to the Greensboro committee, $22,250 to the Winston-Salem-Forsyth County committee and just $4,000 to the High Point committee. Campaign contributions from individuals with a financial stake in the Heart of the Triad area to elected officials on the steering committee – as determined by posted realty signs and rezoning requests – came to only $5,050, most of them from employees of Shugart Enterprises. The Winston-Salem company has been ranked as the largest Triad homebuilder by The Business Journal. Company president Grover Shugart Jr. contributed a total of $1,500 to Forsyth County Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt’s 2004 campaign and $1,250 to Guilford County Commissioner Linda Shaw’s 2006 campaign. The fact that backers of the Heart of the Triad concept have few visible investments in the area at the moment does not assuage the concerns of opponents. One of the most vocal opponents is Rep. Larry Brown, a Republican who represents Forsyth County in the NC General Assembly. A former mayor of Kernersville and a real estate broker himself, Brown took part in early discussions about the Heart of the Triad before turning against it. “The whole thing got skewed by a bunch of real estate fanatics that were seizing the opportunity to make money at the expense of the taxpayers,” he told YES! Weekly. They’re artificially inflating the value every day they talk about developing the property. That’s why they won’t give it up. They’re hoping that through the inflated value people will sell out. “In the original concept it included the municipalities of Kernersville, Greensboro and High Point,” Brown continued. “Winston-Salem has no dog in the fight. Forsyth and Guilford counties have no dog in the fight. It’s nobody else’s business. It’s certainly not the business of twenty-two chambers of commerce who wanted to join the argument.” The membership of the Heart of the Triad steering committee leans heavily toward real estate, development and other pro-business interests, with no representation from environmental groups, advocates for the poor, farmers or clergy. In addition to Perkins and King, the committee includes Carole Bruce, a lawyer with Smith Moore, who represents the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce; Nancy Dunn, CEO of Aladdin Travel in Winston-Salem, who represents the NC Board of Transportation; and Henry Isaacson, a lawyer who frequently argues rezoning cases before the Greensboro City Council on behalf of developers, who represents the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority. Steering committee member John Faircloth, who represents High Point as the city’s mayor pro tem, is also a realtor. Faircloth, an employee of Coldwell Banker Triad Realtors, had to recuse himself from a city council vote in May 2005 on a rezoning request by Shugart Management because of a potential conflict of interest. He said he will recuse himself again if a developer represented by his company seeks a zoning change or annexation in the Heart of the Triad area in the future. In the meantime, he sees no conflict of interest in continuing to serve on the committee. “I don’t think anybody knows right now what the Heart of the Triad is going to be,” he said. Until the concept is implemented, “there’s really no way now to know who’s going to be involved.” Several members of the transportation advisory committees also work in real estate and development. They include Mike Winstead, manager of Mega Builders and a member of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition; Kirk Perkins, a real estate appraiser who is a member of the Greensboro Builders Association and the Greater Greensboro Association of Realtors; and John Parks, a commercial real estate broker for Price Commercial Properties. All three got their seats on transportation advisory committees by virtue of their elected positions on the Guilford County Commission. In a recent interview, Arnold King scoffed at the notion that realtors and developers are driving the Heart of the Triad project to line their own pockets. “My company is me,” he said. “I’m small. I can’t say no, [that I’d never handle properties in the Heart of the Triad]. I’m not talking to anyone out there. That’s not my motivation. I’m serving on the steering committee because the Kernersville Chamber of Commerce asked me to. I have been a very strong advocate for regional cooperation…. It has nothing to do with real estate involvement. I’m insulted that they suggest that. I cannot tell you that I never would.” Notwithstanding the heavy hand of big business, the Heart of the Triad has some proponents who view it as an environmentally progressive initiative, and generally a forward-looking model of urban planning. Proponents suggest that the dense, clustered development envisioned with the Heart of the Triad would reduce the length of car trips and improve air quality. “What we’re seeing now is an explosion of growth across the urban areas of our state, including the central Triad,” said Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem city councilman and transportation advisory committee member who has declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor in 2008. “If we do no planning we’ll end up with wall-to-wall cul-de-sac subdivisions and unplanned industrial areas within a generation’s time. That’s why the planning is critical.” Besse added that the Heart of the Triad project has suffered from less than perfect execution in its early stages. “The process so far has had some missteps, including giving insufficient attention to agricultural preservation and input from the residents in the planning area,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s fixable. There should be a concerted effort to bring those people into the process.” Besse has also taken a critical stance against some of the roadway plans tied to the Heart of the Triad. “There’s one particularly controversial road proposal included in the High Point Thoroughfare Plan, a new north-south connector that would impact the Heart of the Triad,” he said. “That proposal has a number of people upset, and I think rightly so. It doesn’t appear designed to accommodate existing development, but it appears designed to facilitate new development.” Besse expressed strong support for passenger rail service linking the Heart of the Triad to Winston-Salem and Greensboro. “What we can hope to do with passenger rail service is diminish the need for new roadway and additional lanes,” he said. “We’re talking about a fifty percent growth in North Carolina between 2000 and 2030. Under that kind of growth pressure, we’re highly unlikely to be able to develop new transportation that will eliminate all the backlog requests that you get for new roads across the state.” Greensboro City Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who serves on the Greensboro transportation advisory committee, said transportation and land-use planning for the Heart of the Triad needs to include poor people. “We need a plan that takes into account affordable housing,” she said. “Jobs are not going to be just high income; it’s important to make sure that people who make seven dollars an hour are part of that mix. One of my questions about the airport whenever the developers came before us was, are those homes and condos that they’re building the kind that maintenance workers and secretaries can afford? If we don’t have a place for them to live there, how are they going to get to work?” Brent McKinney, executive director of the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation and a member of the Heart of the Triad Technical Committee, portrays the project as a matter of cities adapting or languishing. “It’s a simple formula: Put the destination close to the origin,” he said. “In the fifties the goal was to separate our destinations so you didn’t have to live near a manufacturing plant. Now in small rural areas and mid-sized areas we’re still playing catch-up. There are some areas that saw this coming about thirty years ago and did something. You can point to areas like Portland, Oregon. They said, ‘We don’t want to use this money for interstates; we want to put it into rail….’ The trend we’re on right now is not the trend we need to be on to meet our needs in the face of limited and dwindling resources.” Developers, McKinney said, are not necessarily at odds with that vision. The profit motive leads developers to respond to market demands, and if consumers demand sustainable communities, developers will build accordingly. “We need to get our citizens informed and involved just the way they did forty or fifty years ago when the trends were set up after World War II,” the transportation chief said. “You’ve got a new generation. They don’t enjoy mowing a half-acre yard every weekend. We no longer have a one wage-earner family. We’re still chasing the American dream that was set up for us by our grandparents. Today’s young people want quality time and quality things to do, and there is no quality when you spend all your time in a car.”

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

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