Whether the administrative purpose of the open space committee was, in fact, limited to the acquisition of open space lands is a matter of contention — one that might be illuminated, ironically, by the opportunity to review the missing minutes.

Members of the dismantled open space committee, including former chair John D. Young, like to point out that the county commission approved a document called the 2009 Guilford County Open Space Report, which lays out a roadmap for developing an effective stewardship system for the open-space properties.

Blackberries at Rich Fork Preserve

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“A land management system is needed to responsibly care for the open space property owned by Guilford County through the efforts of the open space program,” the report states. “An effective system would be guided by an overarching management and stewardship policy and more detailed policies tailored to individual properties. Each plan would seek to balance protection of natural resources with appropriate public access.”

Typical perhaps of the county commission’s level of engagement with the open space program, the commission approved the 2009 open space report as part of a consent agenda — a legislative mechanism in which noncontroversial items are rolled in together and approved as a package — without a staff presentation and without comment from a single commissioner.

The county commission is also on record as supporting the aims of the open space program through its adoption of the county’s 2006 comprehensive plan, which notes that “the open space committee recommends the county employ strategies to ensure open space properties are preserved in perpetuity as natural areas.”

Considering that many of the former members of the open space committee are retired and that proponents of keeping active recreation out of places like the Rich Fork Preserve skew elderly, it’s easy to view preservation as an exercise in nostalgia. Who’s to say that cherished memories of playing in a creek and carving one’s name in a tree 75 years ago should outweigh the creation of new memories by middle-aged men romping through the woods on mountain bikes who might also value the land and care just as much about protecting it?

Brian Crean joined the open space committee as an adjunct member after donating $1,000 to the program from the proceeds of a photography exhibit at the Green Bean. Now 47, Crean was the youngest member of the committee at the time it was disbanded. As someone who had always complained about suburban sprawl, Crean said he saw an opportunity to do something instead of just talking.

“I was happy there was a group protecting land from overdevelopment,” he said.

An avid runner who lives in the College Hill neighborhood of Greensboro, he also enjoys riding his bike on up to Bur-Mil Park on the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway. Like many open space advocates, he said he has nothing against mountain biking.

“My emphasis was always on the conservation end and wildlife protection as opposed to recreation,” Crean said. “They’re giant outdoor classrooms. We had university students studying salamanders. I think it’s great to have nature walks instead of people zipping through on mountain bikes or clearing land for parking lots.”

With the dismantling of the open space committee, disappearance of the minutes and replacement of the term “open space” with “passive parks” on the county website, open space advocates have become increasingly suspicious of the county commission’s agenda. With the conservative shift on the governing board, they worry about a push to monetize the properties while overlooking the value of protecting watershed and wildlife, and enhancing the value of adjacent properties.

“Land is seen as a means of production and profit,” John D. Young said in an email to Jack Jezorek.

“What we, many voters and the [open space program] envisioned as land preservation and simple nature preserves is now being viewed at best as active recreation and heavy-use parking space,” he continued. “Selling tracts for development is also an option for some on the [county commission].”

Commissioner Alan Branson acknowledged that elected officials have discussed selling off one parcel.

“The parcel that was purchased that adjoins the Randleman Reservoir, it’s undevelopable,” he said. “There’s not a huge amount of good trail use that can come out of it.”

Branson also said commissioners have discussed selectively logging some of the properties.

“We’re meeting with the Forest Service,” he said. “It’s not anything where we’re going to clear-cut. It’s to deal with beetles and other infestation. It would be a selective cut.”

Acknowledging differences of public opinion, Commissioner Kay Cashion said she and her colleagues need to have a conversation about how to manage the properties purchased through the open space program, adding that some properties might be appropriate for mountain biking, while others might need to more strictly preserved.

Branson said when county commissioners held their last retreat, they instructed staff to come up with a plan to open the preserves for the community’s use.

“What the community as a whole voted on needs to be open to the whole community,” he said, “not just four or five people.”

Conservationists comprised about two thirds of the crowd at the June 25 public input meeting on the Rich Fork Preserve at High Point Public Library, revealing themselves through angry outbursts to clumsy attempts by county staff to answer questions and loud cheering in response to rhetorical points by members of their cohort. The mountain bikers, mainly middle-aged men, stuck out by their defensive body language — wide-eyed vigilance, tensed shoulders and furtive glances around the room. Judging by the mountain bikers’ relatively low turnout, many of the conservationists concluded that their opponents are confident they already have the decision in the bag.

Lib Conner addresses Thomas Marshburn (photo by Jordan Green)

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The ambiguity of terms like “passive parks” and lack of documentation opens the process up for abuse, suggested Julien McCarthy of Browns Summit.

McCarthy asked Parks Division Director Thomas Marshburn how the county defines “passive recreation.”

“The commissioners have passed the definition of passive recreation, but off the top of my head I don’t know it,” Marshburn said, promising to get back with McCarthy.

“We needed that before the meeting,” McCarthy protested. “So that’s another piece of information that’s ambiguous. That leaves room for misinterpretation and some problems for property owners who were promised these would be preserves.”

Marshburn knew better than to answer when McCarthy asked him how the county defines “preserve.”

“I’m concerned about something changing because of all these ambiguities in this meeting,” McCarthy said. “People need to understand what these things mean before they decide whether they’re pro or against certain aspects of the use of the preserve. In my case, I want it to be a traditional preserve where ‘passive’ means walking through.”

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5 COMMENTS

  1. It is important to understand that all actions and recommendations by the Guilford County Open Space Committee had to be fully approved by the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission and the Board of County Commissioners. For example the approval of the 2009 Open Space Report, while officially approved on a consent agenda, required a lot of direct interaction with the BOCC in work session meetings and many conversations.

  2. A handful of octogenerians who want to exclude any user group that would conflict with their childhood memories of the forest area? Seems like that’s a much more obvious example of a “special-interest group” than the much, much larger subset of the population that respects and cherishes the outdoors while also utilizing it for health, fitness, and wholesome family exercise.

  3. Well said Tommy. I was at this meeting and it was every bit as intense as the author describes. Very thankful Mark Gatehouse was there to share his perspective and information.

  4. So after 10 million dollars of bond money has been spent; I’ll ask one question. Where are the bike trails?

    IMHO, the only misinterpretation came from the Guilford County Open Space Committee, and their lack of diligence in following the 2009 Guilford County Open Space report. Which was their mission statement at the time. Below is a copy and paste of part of said report…

    WHAT IS OPEN SPACE?

    The Guilford County Open Space Committee has been in existence for eight years. In that time,
    the OSC has put together a successful land protection program based on the following tenets.

    Definition of Open Space

    “Land in a predominantly undeveloped condition, including forests, wetlands, stream corridors,
    managed meadows, and agricultural areas. Land protected by Guilford County as open space is
    protected in perpetuity and is suitable for native wildlife and plant habitat; water quality
    protection; natural resource preservation; passive recreation; trails for non-motorized vehicles;
    ecologically sustainable agricultural activities; and scientific or educational uses.” Guilford
    County Open Space Committee, July 17, 2007.

    Mission Statement of the Open Space Program

    To identify suitable lands for acquisition and preservation, develop plans for their protection and
    provide public education about land conservation.
    Guiding Principles of the Open Space Program
    1) Acquisition and preservation of open space will be based on working with willing
    property owners. There will be no takings of private land.
    2) Establishing priority areas for the acquisition of open space and updating them
    periodically, while being flexible enough to take advantage of special acquisition
    opportunities and respond effectively to threats on high priority tracts.
    3) A focus on the multiple uses, functions and benefits of open space.
    4) Adherence to the concept of corridors and bubbles, such that, in thirty years, there will be
    strategically located open space bubbles or core areas throughout the county. Those core
    areas will be linked together by corridors, such as streams, greenways, bike trails,
    walking paths, or other linear connections to facilitate wildlife migration and recreation
    in core areas. Core areas will have uses appropriate for each site.
    5) Optimal use of bond funds to maximize their impact by seeking matching grants, by
    accepting donations of land, and by seeking partners to help acquire and manage open
    space.

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