by Jordan Green
Concerned that county leaders are on the verge of making a decision on the Rich Fork Preserve, a local citizens committee in High Point and conservationists from across the county are recommending a plan, but at least one county commissioner says the project might be shelved until the controversy dies down.
The Rich Fork Preserve Committee, a group of High Point residents joined by conservationists from across Guilford County, adopted a plan to develop the 116-acre preserve during a meeting on Monday at the High Point Museum.
After approving a unanimous resolution in support of the plan, committee members agreed to deliver copies to the Republican-controlled Guilford County Commission, with whom they have butted heads over the past several months on the issue of mountain biking, in hopes that they can forge an agreement for the future of the preserve.
The plan calls for the county to spend funds from the 2004 open space bond to complete a gravel parking lot at the West Parris Avenue entrance to the preserve and install an entrance kiosk and trail signage. Dorothy Darr, a committee member, said she believes $300,000 remains in the bond fund, which began with $10 million and was mostly spent to acquire 14 open space properties across the county. Under the plan adopted by the committee, a $20,000 grant from the late Lib Connor would be used to develop a walking trail on property previously owned by her family, and private grant funds raised through the High Point Historical Society would pay for the stabilization of the historic Hedgecock farmhouse near the West Parris Avenue entrance.
“We do think all of this is very doable in 12 to 18 months,” said Marie Poteat, a member of the subcommittee that drew up the plan. “This is a very fiscally responsible plan. That’s something we want to emphasize.”
Commissioner Alan Branson, the vice president of the county legislative board, declined to comment on the proposal in an interview on Tuesday. Branson has publicly clashed with members of the Rich Fork committee and the former Guilford County Open Space Committee. He said the two groups need to work together with the Greensboro Fat Tire Society, a mountain-biking advocacy group, if they want to make progress.
“We’ve got a master plan going; there’s nothing environmentally harmful,” said Branson, a Republican who represents rural District 4. “I look forward to working the rest of the commission going forward. There’s not sense in carrying the nonsense between these three groups of individuals on this parcel of property. There has to be some give and take somewhere down the road.”
Republican Commissioner Alan Perdue and Democratic Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who respectively represent districts 2 and 7, said they hadn’t received the recommendation and would wait until they have an opportunity to review it to make any comment.
Rich Fork Preserve committee members debated whether bicycles should be allowed on a future connector trail — as distinct from a circuitous mountain biking complex, which all of them oppose. The debate came up both as a tactical consideration in trying to fashion a plan with a reasonable chance of buy-in from the county commission and on its own merits. Some, like Darr, argued that a connector trail through the preserve could link up with a future network of greenways throughout the city.
The example of the Richardson/Taylor Preserve north of Greensboro, which many consider a model for the development of the Rich Fork Preserve, also instigated debate over the role of bicycling. While some committee members noted approvingly that the trail through the Richardson-Taylor Preserve is a hand-hewn footpath, others mentioned that future plans call for the trail to connect with Haw River State Park, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to the north and the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway to the south in Greensboro. The completion of those connections will make the trail network an attractive linear connector for cyclists.
An initial draft of the plan called for building a “connector trail for hikers and bicyclists.”
Some committee members argued that an endorsement of any kind of cycling would introduce a slippery slope and make it hard to defend a position against mountain biking, which they consider more disruptive.
“You’re putting your foot in the water, and you’re not going to get it back because the alligator’s going to bite it off,” argued Tom Blount, who is the retired editor of the High Point Enterprise.
Bob Kollar, a former member of the Guilford County Parks & Recreation Commission who lives in Greensboro, argued the committee needs to leave the door open to compromise to increase the odds of the county commission adopting the plan.
“Let me be clear,” Kollar said. “I don’t want mountain biking. I don’t want biking at all. But we’ve got a political reality here. We’ve got a group of people who are feeling their power. If we don’t make some concessions to them, they’ll say, ‘We’ll show you.’”
Ultimately, the committee adopted language in the plan that makes no mention of biking or hiking, but deliberately allows flexibility in the future development of a connector trail that might allow biking.
The resolution reads: “As a committee, we favor and think it’s important to revisit the possibility of having a trail through the preserve if there is a connector to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and greenways.”
Committee members expressed a sense of urgency because of the belief that county commissioners are eager to move past the controversy surrounding the Rich Fork Preserve and could lock down plans soon.
But Branson said in a subsequent interview that far from the commission expediting the project, they may opt to put it on a backburner until the controversy simmers down. When asked when the commission might take action on the matter, he responded, “If folks are not going to get along, maybe never.” He added, “It may be a project that is pushed to the back of the list and becomes a non-priority.”
Considering that the county has invited outside groups to maintain the other preserves as part of a cost-savings effort, members decided that a cover letter to county leaders will state that the Rich Fork Preserve Committee stands ready to take on responsibility for stewardship.
“The county commissioners are very interested in turning this over to some stewardship group,” Darr said. “And the mountain bikers are ready.”
She added that committee members should consider formalizing an arrangement to manage volunteers to take care of the preserve.
Bill Phillips, another committee member, noted that he was working with students at High Point University to clean streams in the preserve and clear out the mountain bikers’ illegal ramps.
“Maintaining this trail is going to be a piece of cake,” he said.