Guilford commission backs away from idea of selling preserve to Y

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by Jordan Green

The Guilford County Commission backs away from giving the Rich Fork Preserve to the YMCA of High Point, but a controversy over mountain biking on the property rages on.

Guilford County leaders pulled back from the idea of transferring the Rich Fork Preserve to the YMCA of High Point on Dec. 3 amidst strong opposition from open-space advocates across the county and concern about mountain biking on land purchased through a 2004 bond.

Commissioner Alan Branson, a Republican who has butted heads with open-space advocates, went on record as saying he would not vote in favor of transferring the property to the YMCA, joining Commissioner Kay Cashion, a Democrat on the board.

Republican Chairman Hank Henning, who initiated the discussion with the YMCA leadership, distanced himself from the idea after Branson signaled his opposition at the end of the three-hour meeting.

“There was never a discussion about we’re going to definitely do this — we’re going to push this through and give it to the Y,” Henning said.

Branson pointedly asked Dot Kearns, a former county commissioner and current chair of the Rich Fork Preserve Committee, where she heard that the property might be transferred, while Henning skirted the issue in his comments, yet acknowledged that he had approached the YMCA about a potential partnership.

Comments from Jay Wagner, who chairs the board of directors at the YMCA, made it clear during comments at the beginning of the meeting that the concept of transferring the property was on the table during the discussion. Wagner is also a High Point city councilman, who represents Ward 4, where the property is located.

“I want to assure you of several things in the event that the property is transferred to us in some way,” he said. “First of all, we will honor the commitment made by the county to its citizens that this property will remain open space.”

Underpinning the strong feelings about the fate of the 116-acre preserve on the west side of High Point were heated differences among two contingents about whether mountain biking should be allowed on the property. Opponents of mountain biking at Rich Fork Preserve also feel betrayed that the Republican-controlled county commission dismantled the Guilford County Open Space Committee, which enlisted Kearns and other High Point residents to come up with a plan for the preserve. Open-space advocates have insisted that the Rich Fork Preserve and 13 other properties purchased through a 2004 bond should be reserved for conservation and low-impact recreational purposes.

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Statements from the commissioners indicating they either opposed transferring the property to the YMCA or were backing away from the idea came after a legal salvo at the Dec. 3 meeting.

Bo Rodenbough, a lawyer with Brooks Pierce, told commissioners that he represents Dr. Donald Douglass, a property owner who sold one of the properties that comprises the Rich Fork Preserve to the county, along with a newly formed group called Guilford Citizens for the Preservation of Open Space. After the meeting, Rodenbough indicated that he would anticipate taking legal action to block any potential transfer of the property to the YMCA.

Rodenbough said Douglass sold his property to the county at a price below market value, and received conservation tax credits for the discounted value of the land. The terms of the sale puts the property under a conservation easement, and Rodenbough said that under state law it can only be transferred to a “qualified conservation entity,” which could include a governmental subdivision or a charitable organization that has land conservation or open-space preservation as part of its core mission. Considering that neither is true for the YMCA, Rodenbough said the county cannot transfer the Douglass property to the agency.

Sharisse Fuller, then the county manager, signed a document in March 2013 confirming that the county had accepted the property as a donation under the conservation tax credit program and confirming that the county would “conserve in perpetuity the property’s conservation values,” including “public access to public waters and trails, fish and wildlife conservation, forestland and farmland conservation, watershed protection, and conservation of natural areas.” The notice is on file with the Guilford County Register of Deeds.

“There’s been much talk about mountain biking being a trail use of the property or passive recreation use of the property,” Rodenbough told the commissioners. “Mountain biking, as opposed to trail biking, is an active sport. It requires a course that is laid out, the trees are cut and is designed to maximize the thrill of riding a bike over hills and so forth.”

When Rodenbough mentioned cutting trees, a chorus of “No, no, no” erupted from a row of mountain bikers who are members of the Greensboro Fat Tire Society.

Mark Gatehouse, a member of the group, said after the meeting that many people have misconceptions about the sport based on Mountain Dew or Red Bull commercials showing people flying over wooden ramps. Some of the group’s members, such as geologist Jason Millington, bring professional expertise to their volunteer work with the organization to develop and maintain trails across the county.

“There’s about 45 miles of hiking or biking trails in the watershed areas of Guilford County,” said David Phlegar, who is employed as the stormwater manager for the city of Greensboro and volunteers with the Fat Tire Society as a recreational cyclist. “Many of those trails, especially the new ones, are built with sustainable methods that incorporate the contour of the trail around the contours of the land, building wooden bridges over streams in low-lying areas, minimizing steep slopes and so forth. As a result, there are really no water-quality or erosion concerns on many of the trails in Guilford County today.”

Open space advocates have pointedly mentioned that mountain bikers use “complexes” or “courses” to argue that their activity constitutes an active sport as opposed to a “passive use,” and that the trail function contemplated in the open space program refers to linear connections. Gatehouse and other mountain bikers counter that they have been prohibited from using the linear trails and that the dedicated mountain biking courses are a concession to hikers who don’t want to share the trails with them.    

Guilford County Facilities, Parks & Property Management Director Robert McNiece told commissioners that a public open house will be held in High Point in January to get input on the master plan for Rich Fork Preserve before the plan comes before the county commission for approval. The plan in its current draft sets aside 15 acres for mountain biking. The current plan also provides 11 access points to the park, which Henning said, “We are quite frankly not going to do.”

The residents from across the county who filled the meeting room on Dec. 3 were almost evenly divided between open-space advocates and those who favor more active recreational uses like mountain biking. And when Henning asked residents of High Point to stand, they were placed in both camps.

Regardless of whether the YMCA plays a role in the stewardship of the Rich Fork Preserve, the controversy over mountain biking is all but certain to continue. But Kearns greeted the commissioners’ statements about the potential transfer of the property with relief.

“Mr. Chairman, that’s the only quarrel that I know of that any of these folks that have worked with me or have worked with the open-space group has had,” she said. “We do not feel that public land that the citizens voted to put in place should be deeded over to a private entity, no matter how respectable they are.”