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.
“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.
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.”