Guilford commission inches toward decision on Rich Fork

Rich Fork Preserve Committee chair Dot Kearns speaks to Facilities Director Ray McNiece (center) after a Guilford County Commission briefing. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Republican majority on the Guilford County Commission votes to approve biking and hiking as part of a concept for Rich Fork Preserve, while insisting that a final decision on mountain biking — something ardently opposed by preservationists — remains to be determined.

It’s likely that not many people run for county commission on a pro-mountain biking agenda, or for that matter a pro-conservation agenda. For elected officials, the toughest fights are often the ones that land in their laps, not the ones they choose.

So it is with the battle over whether to allow mountain biking in Rich Fork Preserve, a 116-acre tract along the west side of High Point.

For much of the 2000s and into the current decade, a knowledgeable group of citizen volunteers organized as the Guilford County Open Space Committee worked with a dedicated staff liaison named Alex Ashton to purchase and create stewardship plans for open space properties. Their work attracted little interest or oversight from the Democrat-controlled county commission.

When Republicans took control of the county commission in 2012, the new majority became suspicious of the program. Ashton left the county’s employment, and the open space committee was unceremoniously disbanded by then-Chairman Bill Bencini in late 2014.

Meanwhile, at the suggestion of members of the open space committee, a local group in High Point formed to discuss how to preserve the historic Hedgecock farmstead, a part of the Rich Fork Preserve. The new Rich Fork Preserve, Hedgecock Farm and Conner Trail Committee drew on the expertise of their friends in the open space group, raised money to stabilize the Hedgecock house and alerted neighbors with property adjacent to the preserve. They chose as their chairperson Dot Kearns, a former Democratic chair of the Guilford County Commission and former member of the Guilford County School Board.

In the years before the county purchased the properties for the preserve, mountain bikers had trespassed on the land and created a network of trails. As plans for the preserve took shape after the county assembled the properties in 2012, the mountain bikers saw an opportunity to legitimize their use of the land, and lobbied staff and members of the new Republican majority on the county commission. The members of the Rich Fork Preserve Committee, meanwhile, came to a consensus that mountain biking was an inappropriate use of the land. Their allies from the county-wide open space group, motivated by the conviction that mountain biking is antithetical to the purpose of the 2004 bond under which the property was purchased, joined forces. Just as the Rich Fork Preserve Committee was gaining steam, the county began withdrawing its support, opting to no longer send staff to the committee’s meetings.

A clash of personalities was inevitable. On one side: The High Point citizen-volunteers led by Kearns, a veteran Democratic politico with a feisty disposition who is backed up by expertise, privately raised funds and a constituency. On the other side: Younger Republican commissioners like High Pointer Hank Henning, Alan Branson and Jeff Phillips, who feel they have the prerogative to shape the county’s parks and recreation program in the way they see fit as the duly elected representatives of the county’s voters.

While a consulting group developed a master plan that the preservationists felt ignored their input, the Republican commissioners tried to nudge the process forward without confirming the suspicions of the preservationists that they’ve been in the tank for the mountain bikers all along. The commissioners bounced the issue to the parks and recreation commission, and then took it back.

What was new last week as the county commission inched towards a plan for the preserve is that the Democratic minority members on the board, previously somewhat disengaged, solidified their alignment with the preservationists.

“We’re looking to make a decision without hearing what the volunteers of this county have to say about it, and that disturbs me,” Commissioner Ray Trapp, a Democrat who represents District 8 in Greensboro, said during an Aug. 4 briefing at the Old County Courthouse.

“It disturbs me because we have a conservative board, and this stinks of Big Brother. Little brother can’t make the decision, so now we’re gonna step in and make the decision. It’s very disturbing when we have volunteers and we don’t take things that they say into consideration, but we tell them that we are.

“If it’s the will of this board not to have an advisory group and not to allow the citizens of this county to have input, then just man up and woman up and say that,” Trapp added. “Don’t keep wasting people’s time and putting on these charades.”

Phillips defended the process, saying, “There has been a litany of opportunity for the public to weigh in.” At Phillips’ instigation, Facilities, Parks & Property Management Director Robert McNiece ran down a list of public input efforts, beginning in October 2014. Preservationists jeered when McNiece mentioned an electronic survey sent out in February 2015, which they contend was released without their knowledge while the mountain bikers were alerted. Two motions made by Commissioner Justin Conrad, a Republican whose represents District 3 in Greensboro and northwestern portions of the county, ran into opposition from Democrats.

When Conrad moved to direct staff to solicit proposals for options to preserve the Hedgecock farmstead, shore up the foundation of the house and ascertain the cost of long-term maintenance, Democrat Carolyn Coleman called Kearns to the podium to answer questions. Kearns told the commissioners that the Rich Fork Preservation Committee had obtained a $15,000 grant from the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation and hired a structural engineer to assess the costs of preservation. When Penn Wood, a past president of the High Point Historical Society, held up a white binder with the report by Greensboro architect Jerry Leimenstoll, Phillips told him he was not authorized to speak. Eventually, Phillips instructed Wood to pass the information on to McNiece.

The board approved the motion to solicit bids to determine costs associated with preserving the farmstead on a 7-2 vote, with Trapp and Coleman dissenting. Conrad’s second motion to approve hiking and biking as a part of the overall concept of the preserve and to direct staff to engage a firm to design specific proposals for the trails passed by a narrower majority, with the board’s five Republicans in support and the four Democrats opposed.