by Jordan Green
The fate of mountain biking at Rich Fork Preserve remains undecided, but the logistics of the concept are becoming increasingly difficult as opposition mounts.
Plans by Guilford County to allow recreational biking in High Point’s Rich Fork Preserve continues to encounter sharp resistance from conservationists.
Members of the defunct open space committee and members of a local subcommittee set up to guide plans for the stewardship of the preserve have long opposed mountain biking, which they see as incompatible with the guidelines of the 2004 bond that financed acquisition of Rich Fork and other properties across the county. During a meeting at the High Point Museum on Monday, Parks Director Thomas Marshburn sought to allay conservationists’ concerns by telling them the activity in the preserve would be gentler than previously understood. Meanwhile, the logistics of recreational cycling in the preserve appear increasingly difficult because of the various concerns of a wide range of constituencies.
A new map distributed by Marshburn at the meeting shows a “hike/bike trail area” at the southern end of the preserve near Northwood Elementary.
“People keep talking about the mountain bikes; I want to make one thing clear,” Marshburn said. “The mountain bikes here on a passive park is not like the mountain bikes you would have at a park. This is more trail-bike riding. It’s riding on whatever ground is there. You’re not coming in there and building jumps. You’re not making cuts into dirt. It’s the earth that is there. You’re not going in cutting out trees.”
Some residents who live in adjoining neighborhoods expressed skepticism, noting that the uneven topography of the area with dramatic variations in height is precisely what makes it attractive to mountain bikers. In the past, neighboring residents have hauled out ramps built by the mountain bikers after the previous owner, Dr. Donald Douglass, told them they didn’t have permission to ride on his property. Marshburn acknowledged that the illegal course installed before the county acquired the property features “a lot of cut up and down trails.”
Douglass sold the property to the county at a price below market value through a conservation easement. The agreement binds the county to maintain “conservation of natural areas.”
“This is where the illegal mountain bike trails, the ramps, the jumps and everything were on,” said Anne Hice, a former member of the open space committee who lives in Pleasant Garden. “To put bikes back on that trail in my opinion is unacceptable.”
Bo Rodenbough, a Greensboro lawyer who represents an unincorporated association called Guilford County Citizens for the Preservation of Open Space that is made up of former members of the open space committee, told county commissioners in December that they couldn’t legally transfer the property to the YMCA of High Point because of the conservation easement. But during a phone interview on Monday he said he believes the conservation easement would allow trail riding, which he described as a “passive recreation use.”
Even if the biking area passes legal muster, access remains a challenge. County commissioners nixed a previous plan to put in trailhead at Homestead Avenue in response to vocal objections by neighbors. Marshburn said he is meeting with the school leadership at Northwood Elementary to try to negotiate access. As he was leaving the meeting on Monday, he disclosed that there’s no alternative access point if school officials don’t agree to the plan, although he said the biking area could potentially go in a different section of the preserve.
Hice said she likes the idea of eventually paving the main trail, conceived as running north to south from the YMCA to the elementary school, as a multi-use path wide enough to accommodate cyclists, along with walkers and runners.
Rodenbough said a paved linear trail would likely meet the legal requirements of the conservation easement, comparing it to the Price Park Greenway, maintained by the Greensboro Parks & Recreation Department in the northwest part of the city on property donated by Kathleen Bryan Edwards.
Tempers flared at the meeting on Monday as Hank Henning, chairman of the Guilford County Commission, attempted to leave so that he could make another meeting. Several of the people bombarded Henning and Marshburn with questions, and became increasingly frustrated when they didn’t receive the responses they wanted.
Under withering questioning, Marshburn admitted to instructing a subordinate to call the Fat Tire Society, a group of mountain-biking advocates, to alert them to a Survey Monkey electronic poll to gather public input on what types of activities should take place in the preserve. He said he also instructed the employee to alert a horseback riding group, Northwoods Elementary and members of the preserve’s local stewardship committee. Dot Kearns, who chairs the local stewardship committee, complained that there was no effort to contact the neighbors.
“When a city has a rezoning, they send out a notice to all the people who live contiguous to the property,” she said.
Henning agreed that the poll was flawed.
“Survey Monkey is not a scientific way,” he said. “It’s not the best.”
Kearns asked Henning why in every iteration, the county commissioners and staff insist on including biking: “Why is it essential to have that in this fragile place?”
Henning said that considering that the land belongs to all the county’s taxpayers, he feels obligated to listen to all sides, while acknowledging that some of his colleagues on the county commission strongly favor mountain biking.
“We’re gathering the facts and trying to find a compromise and trying to make all parties happy,” he said. “And as I said, that’s often just not possible. We may end up allowing mountain biking, and we may not. I appreciate all the hard work that you folks have put in this. I’ve heard from just as many folks from around the county who want it as who don’t. I wish there was a clear-cut opinion one way or the other.”