At least one portion of the lengthy, ugly and unnecessary dispute on Rich Fork Preserve is over. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, August 4, by a straight party-line vote decided that mountain biking trails would be developed at the nature preserve.
The motion made by Commissioner Justin Conrad was a little confusing because it was to approve, “as part of the overall concept design for the Rich Fork Preserve, the allowance of hiking and biking trails on the property.”
Commissioner Kay Cashion asked a series of questions about whether this meant trails for regular bikes or for mountain bikes. She was finally told it meant mountain bike trails.
Voting in favor of the motion were Chairman Jeff Phillips and Commissioners Alan Branson, Hank Henning, Alan Perdue and Conrad – all the Republicans.
Voting against were Commissioners Carolyn Coleman, Carlvena Foster, Ray Trapp and Cashion – all the Democrats.
After the meeting, when Phillips was asked if the commissioners’ action meant that there would be mountain biking at the Rich Fork Preserve, he said, “Yes.”
How mountain biking became a partisan issue is hard to explain. It certainly isn’t included in the platform of the national committees of either party. But in Guilford County, mountain biking trails are partisan. No one is actually opposed to mountain biking; the question was whether mountain biking was appropriate in a nature preserve. A large contingent that had been involved in working with the property was opposed to mountain biking trails as being too disruptive for a nature preserve, and a large contingent of mountain bikers, as one might expect, were very much in favor of mountain biking trails on the preserve.
The Republicans lined up with the mountain bikers and the Democrats with the preservationists.
Some of those opposed to mountain biking trails being included in this nature preserve expressed concern that the motion was read, which means it was prepared before the meeting. In defense of the Republicans, that’s the way issues are handled when you have a majority. The Democrats did it when they had a majority and now that the Republicans have a majority they are doing the same thing. Any compromise is worked out within the majority party before the meeting. It may not seem fair, but that’s politics. The Republicans in the General Assembly in Raleigh and in Congress in Washington do the same thing, and when the Democrats had majorities it’s what they did.
The special meeting on the Rich Fork Preserve in High Point held at 3 p.m. Thursday, August 4 in the commissioners meeting room was for show. It was not a public hearing and the only person allowed to speak other than commissioners, staff and consultants was former Guilford County Commissioner and former school board member Dot Kearns when she was asked a question by Coleman.
It seems that the Republican commissioners wanted it to appear that they had a full and fair discussion of Rich Fork. Or maybe they simply had time to kill. For whatever reason, Director of Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Robert McNiece gave a presentation that resembled a filibuster more than anything else. His presentation was tedious. Perhaps the goal was to put the Rich Fork Preserve proponents to sleep. Certainly little useful information was imparted during his presentation, which was based as near as I could tell on going over the minutes of commissioners’ meetings from 1976 to the present and doing a key word search for “Rich” “Fork” “Preserve” “biking” “open space” and other such words.
Those in attendance were shown portions of the minutes on the screen at the front of the room, and if ladders had been provided to the public so people could have viewed the screen from two feet away, it might have been possible to read what McNiece kept displaying. From my seat at the front of the room I could tell that the documents appeared to be typed, and portions were highlighted, but there wasn’t a single word in the minutes that was legible. For all I know McNiece was putting up grocery lists, portions of the Bible or random documents he pulled out of a trashcan.
If the presentation had a point, it seemed to be that open space is defined in different ways at different times and by different groups. For example, how Phoenix or the State of Maryland defines open space doesn’t seem germane but was included in the report. Also included was how the property was purchased.
At one point McNiece placed a brochure about the bond referendum that provided the funds to buy the Rich Fork Preserve property on the screen, but McNiece said he didn’t know who produced the brochure. A brochure from an unknown source about the bond referendum didn’t appear to have much bearing, but it did kill time. As did a discussion of tax credits awarded to some property owners who sold their land to the county for less than the appraised value.
In answer to a question from Branson, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne explained that legally the commissioners could spend the bond money on anything that was covered by the language that was on the ballot when the bonds were passed, which means pretty much anything that has to do with parks and recreation. The bond language on ballots is purposefully vague and all encompassing.
The Republican commissioners minds apparently were made up a long time ago to allow mountain biking at this nature preserve. As Trapp noted, the Republican commissioners had said they were following the process, which was to go through the Parks and Recreation Commission, and then they threw the process out the window when it appeared it wasn’t going their way and the Parks and Recreation Commission asked to see a master plan that didn’t include mountain biking trails.
There was also a discussion of the value of master plans and the fact that the master plan for Rich Fork Preserve was not a master plan because it hadn’t been approved, but was a draft of a master plan. The idea of this particular draft of a master plan is to keep the mountain biking in one portion of the preserve, away from the hiking trails and the Hedgecock farmstead.
Branson and Coleman had an interesting back and forth. Branson said that if Coleman was so interested in the issue she could have attended a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting. Coleman said, “I don’t know what meetings we are supposed to attend because the last two or three have been cancelled. I don’t know how you attend a meeting that has been cancelled.”
The last couple of meetings of the Parks and Recreation Commission where the Rich Fork Preserve was supposed to be discussed have been cancelled, so she had a point.
Trapp said, “If you don’t want citizen input then just say that.” He added, “You guys can do what you want to do because you’re going to do that anyway.”
Those who have been involved in making the Rich Fork property purchased by the county into a nature preserve don’t see mountain biking as a compatible use.
It also is undisputable that the mountain bikers have created trails illegally on the property. For those opposed to mountain biking at the preserve, the idea that because some mountain bikers trespassed on the property and damaged it by creating mountain biking trails and are now going to be rewarded with the county paying thousands of dollars to create biking trails is a bridge too far.
The commissioners also got in a long discussion about what to do about the houses and outbuildings on the property.
Branson went into a long diatribe about how expensive it would be to bring the old farmhouse up to code. He is no doubt correct, but bringing the farmhouse up to code would also damage the historic significance it has. Farmhouses from that period didn’t come with handicapped ramps, drop ceilings, shockproof outlets or a road suitable for emergency vehicles to pull up to the front door as Perdue mentioned.
Kearns, when asked a question by Coleman, explained that it was never the intent of the Hedgecock Farm committee to bring the house up to code. The farmhouse and outbuildings are from the old Hedgecock farm, which makes up a portion of the Rich Fork Preserve. Kearns said the idea was to stabilize the farmhouse and preserve it so people can see what a farmhouse from that era looked like.
The idea of bringing it up to code is a red herring. What it indicates is that the commissioners, along with having mountain biking at the nature preserve, are also considering tearing down the buildings because bringing them up to code would be too expensive. But it seems both sides agree it would be too expensive, and according to Kearns it was never the intent of her committee.
Branson also seemed angry because the Hedgecock Farm Committee had raised money and received grants to preserve the buildings. Kearns explained, “We thought we were doing the county’s bidding.” She said that the committee didn’t understand that there was a problem between the commissioners and the Open Space Committee.
Kearns also told the commissioners that the committee had raised the money and had an analysis of the buildings done by a structural engineer. Phillips and several other commissioners said they hadn’t seen the study and asked for copies. Kearns said she would provide them.
Kearns also said, “We have never ever understood that the county would spend money on the stabilization of the buildings. We never thought you were going to pay.” Kearns said that it was always the intention of the committee to work with the county and to provide the funds to stabilize the buildings but not to bring them up to code.
Branson said it would be “very, very, very expensive” to stabilize the buildings.
Kearns said that the structural engineer and historic preservationists who examined the building didn’t think it was going to be expensive.
The commissioners, on a 7-to-2 vote, passed a motion to solicit proposals for preservation of the Hedgecock farmhouse and also bids to restore it. Trapp and Coleman voted against the motion.
After settling the Rich Fork Preserve issue, the commissioners held their regular Thursday evening meeting, which started at 6 p.m. The commissioners heard a report on the upcoming reevaluation of real estate in Guilford County from Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis, and made some appointments to boards and commissions.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing gave a report on a new Golden Leaf program, which will make grant money available to Guilford County.
And the meeting was adjourned.