Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughn said this week that she certainly hasn’t been impressed with the way Guilford County officials have gone about asking the city to grant the county a permit to build an animal shelter on Burlington Road in Greensboro.
However, she added that she’s still open to the idea and is willing to listen – and many other city councilmembers also said this week that they are keeping an open mind about the controversial project.
Four months ago, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to ask the City of Greensboro for a special-use permit that would allow a new animal shelter on the county-owned land on the 3300 block of Burlington Road, property that falls within Greensboro’s city limits. In order for Guilford County to build the shelter there, the county either needs the special-use permit or needs the property rezoned, which means the county must have the backing of the Greensboro City Council if the project is to be approved.
So far, no official request has been made to the city; however, behind the scenes, there’s been a lot of activity on the matter. Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips is leading the effort to gain approval from Greensboro officials, and the county has hired attorney Mark Isaacson – a partner at Isaacson Isaacson Sheridan Fountain & Leftwich who often handles land-use cases – to help in the effort that would mean construction of a new $8 million or so animal shelter next door to the Guilford County Agricultural Center in east Greensboro.
Vaughan said the county’s approach so far has not been impressive. She said Guilford County officials hadn’t done the preliminary work that most developers do before they make a request to the city that will have a large impact on an area. The mayor said that private developers are very good about attempting to work out difficulties with neighbors before asking the City Council for a rezoning or a special-use permit.
Vaughan also said the county commissioners haven’t presented the city with any details, drawings or other illustrations that would let the council know how the proposed shelter would look and operate. She said there had been a fundamental lack of communication up to this point.
“I think there is really a difference in how we view this whole process,” Vaughan said.
According to Vaughan, when a developer comes to the City Council with a controversial project, that developer has usually met with the affected neighbors and had discussions with them about the nature of the project, as well as made attempts to address their concerns.
Vaughan said she had recently spoken with Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad about the proposed animal shelter.
“Justin and I had an interesting conversation,” she said. “This hasn’t been on my radar. What I told Justin is that I’ve had so many things on my plate, I haven’t had that discussion.”
Several commissioners said city councilmembers were upset that the county approved the request without running it by them first, but the commissioners argue that, until the county voted to make the request last May, there was nothing to talk about. The county commissioners who back the move say they saw the Board of Commissioners’ vote to request a special-use permit as the start of the conversation.
One reason the commissioners have been trying to take the temperature of the City Council before officially making the request – and before doing a lot of prep and design work – is that they don’t want to put time, money and effort into the proposal if it’s a lost cause from the beginning. Phillips said this week that the county is willing to do more work to give the city a better idea of the nature of the project if city officials need that information to make their decision.
Vaughan said that, despite her complaints about the process so far, she’s still willing to listen. She said a representative of the county should have at least spoken with Greensboro City Councilmember Jamal Fox before voting to make the special-use permit request for the project since the proposed shelter would fall in Fox’s district. Fox and City Councilmember Sharon Hightower, who also represents many residents in the area, have both been very vocal in making known their intense opposition to a shelter at the Burlington Road location.
Vaughan said the county commissioners still don’t seem to think they’ve done anything wrong in the process.
“I don’t think they understand,” Vaughan said. “They should have reached out to Jamal and had a discussion with him and the neighbors.”
In the initial discussions earlier this year, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman attempted to get the Board of Commissioners to hold a public meeting near the proposed site in order to get input on the project from residents. However, Coleman couldn’t find enough support on the board to make that public meeting happen.
Commissioners and county staff point out that there aren’t many residents in that immediate area, which is already zoned for light industrial and governmental use, and they point out that some property nearby is already being used for those types of purposes. However, city councilmembers are unimpressed with that argument.
Vaughan said that she, for one, needs to know more about the proposed project before she can make a prudent and informed decision.
“Is this going to be a beautiful shelter or a box?” she said. “Are there going to be outside cages? What about dog runs?”
Phillips said the only thing he’s asking is that city councilmembers be open-minded on the possibility.
Phillips also said that the option of building the new shelter at the site of the current shelter, 4525 W. Wendover Ave., becomes less attractive by the day. The Wendover site has topographical issues, offers traffic challenges and presents several logistical problems unique to a construction project on that site.
“The more I look at all those issues, the more I’m thinking it will be at a different location – that’s not to say it’s not a possibility,” Phillips said of building the new shelter at the current Wendover location.
He said the new shelter could have collaborative programs with with NC Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) and the Ag Center, and it could lead to economic development in the community and promote job growth there. He said it’s going to mean an $8 million to $10 million investment into that area.
“All that’s a positive,” Phillips said.
Phillips added that one factor he hopes will help bring people together in this discussion is a desire to do what’s right for the dogs, cats and other animals that will end up at the shelter.
“Most people share a sincere interest in the welfare of animals,” Phillips said.
Greensboro City Councilmember Mike Barber said there’s no question in his mind that the site next to the Ag Center is the right place for the county shelter.
“I support the animal shelter there 100 percent,” Barber said.
He said he believes the shelter would be an economic positive for that part of Greensboro.
“There’s always a discussion about economic activity in Greensboro, and I think a shelter could bring in related businesses,” he said. “It could be a phenomenal boon if you approach it correctly.”
Barber added that a “really nice mixed-use plan” could focus attention on that section of the city, bring in visitors and be a highly positive thing for the area. He said a very common development model is for a new public institution to be established that is later surrounded by private development.
Barber cited an added benefit from the city’s point of view: The county-owned land on Wendover where the current shelter sits could be put on the tax rolls.
“They could sell that land,” Barber said, adding that property in that area is very valuable.
“Anyone with the city’s interest at heart would consider that,” he said.
He added that there’s another reason the city should approve the project. Whenever possible, he said, the city and the county should support each other.
“We can’t agree on everything, but I think every opportunity we get to show support for the commissioners, we should,” Barber said.
Some county officials point out that a spirit of shared mutual cooperation between the two local governments is beneficial to the city as well because there are projects – such as the creation of more soccer fields at the county-owned Bryan Park North – for which the city needs the county’s cooperation. The city has also voted to cancel its large animals services contract with the county and is in the process of attempting to renegotiate that contract.
Barber said a deal between Greensboro and Guilford County a decade ago brought the county a new health and human services building on Maple Street and the city a downtown baseball stadium.
“The county got a new health and human services building and the city got a beautiful baseball facility,” Barber said.
Greensboro City Councilmember Justin Outling said he’s all ears when it comes to the county’s proposal.
“I’m completely open-minded on it,” Outling said.
He said he wanted to hear more information before deciding.
“I’ve read the public comments by Sharon and Jamal,” he said, adding that he, on the other hand, certainly hadn’t made up his mind one way or another.
Greensboro City Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann also said the City Council has been so busy with other matters lately that she hasn’t really had time to study Guilford County’s request.
“It’s not been on my radar,” she said. “My mind will be open to what the commissioners think – and I’ll listen to Jamal and Sharon.”
Greensboro City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson said she wants to hear all the facts.
“I’m going to listen to both sides,” she said. “I don’t want to jump to decisions.”
Johnson said east Greensboro already has its share of landfills, halfway houses and other negative enterprises, and she added that there’s certainly no need for anything that would add to that list, but she said that her decision would depend on the details and what she hears in upcoming discussions.
Greensboro City Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter is another councilmember who said she hasn’t made up her mind.
“I’ve been trying to weigh all the pros and cons,” she said. “I do try to listen to both sides.”
She said one key question she has is whether or not the shelter would offer an economic boost to the area.
Abuzuaiter said anyone who knows her history is aware that she tends to go along with the wishes of residents who live in an area surrounding a proposed development or project, but she added that she’s interested in what the commissioners have to say.
She said one consideration is the fact that the county’s Ag Center is already on that block.
“There’s a barn right there,” she said.
Former Guilford County Property Management Director David Grantham emphasized that point earlier this year when he said of the Burlington Road site, “It already smells – it’s a barnyard.” Grantham said at that time that the Ag Center has 4-H club activities, pigs, cows, horses, goat shows and “piles of manure.”
People & Paws 4 Hope, a program which connects kids with dogs in order to help the children learn reading and other skills, is also already on the same land.
Some city officials said off the record that they are worried about the county going to state legislators to have the shelter approved, but every county official the Rhino Times spoke with said Guilford County had no plan or desire to do something like that. The option did come up in at least one staff meeting, but everyone in Guilford County government seems to thing it is a bad idea.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, when asked about that nuclear option, said it was true that the state could do what it wanted in this case, but Payne emphasized that he was not aware of anyone with Guilford County backing that idea.
“The state does not do zoning but they do make laws regarding zoning,” Payne wrote in an email. “This includes the law that authorizes local governments to do zoning within their jurisdiction. They have often put specific restrictions or exemptions on that authority and could certainly add more if they so chose.”
Phillips said he is very opposed to that strategy.
“I personally, in my mind, think that’s not a consideration,” Phillips said. “We have to work together with a common goal.”
He said that going to the state might actually work, but it would destroy relations with the city and it wouldn’t be worth doing that over an animal shelter location. He said the shelter could go somewhere else if need be – there were other possibilities, he said, though those would cost more and create other concerns. He added that he hoped the city would be open to at least listening to what the county has to say.
Some opponents of the shelter argue it would hinder growth in that part of east Greensboro, but Phillips often points out that there was a shelter near the Wendover/I-40 interchange, and it certainly didn’t stifle economic development in that area. That is now one of the most developed sections of Guilford County.
The Ag Center and associated structures sit on 33 acres of county property on a block of Burlington Road, much of which is currently unused. Guilford County also owns another tract of land in that area, 2.7 acres that has the county’s old polio clinic, a building on the corner of Burlington Road and Huffine Mill Road.