Meeting Rates Project Haystack 80 Thumbs Down
Residents of Guilford and Alamance counties got together at Friedens Lutheran Church in Gibsonville on Thursday, Jan. 23, to collectively express their opinion on Project Haystack – a proposed giant data center park being considered for eastern Guilford County and a small slice of western Alamance County.
The message from the area residents was clear: They don’t want it – they really, really don’t want it.
At least, that was true for all the residents who spoke up at the meeting about the project. The meeting, held at 7 p.m. on the very cold Thursday night, was attended by about 80 people. The meeting was arranged by Public Lands for Agricultural and Community Enrichment (PLACE) – a newly formed group set up to fight the proposed 2,000-acre project that many feel would ruin the quality of life in that highly rural area, which is largely a farming community.
According to supporters, PLACE has applied for nonprofit status and the group plans to do what it can to stop the development, which has an estimated $103-million price that taxpayers are expected to pay.
The proposed project would use the vast majority of the land in and around Gibsonville that now comprises the Guilford County Prison Farm, and land bought from area residents. The plan is to add about 1,200 to 1,400 acres in purchased property to the Prison Farm land already owned by Guilford County.
But many landowners at the meeting seemed highly reluctant to sell their land – which in many cases has been in their families for generations. At the Jan. 23 meeting, they expressed concerns that the county or the state would use eminent domain to take their land from them to build the giant data center park.
Opponents of the project have written letters to the local papers and have spoken to commissioners to express their feelings about the project – but this was the first time they had held a large public meeting. The county, in an attempt to buy options on much of the land, has been meeting with landowners in groups of four or five owners at a time. Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson – the only Guilford County official to attend the Jan. 23 meeting – told the Rhino Times that the reason county officials and project backers have been meeting with owners in small groups in unpublicized meetings is so they didn’t have to face a large group of citizens who could be hostile toward project advocates.
The meeting at Friedens Lutheran Church began with a prayer led by George Teague, an organic dairy farmer in Guilford County. Later, the discussion was led by Anne Hice and Ann Cassebaum – two women who have been vocal critics of the proposed technology park.
The meeting was billed as, “A community discussion on Project Haystack and the best uses of the Open Space lands that comprise the Guilford County Prison Farm.” It began with the attendees breaking into groups of six or seven people at round tables to discuss the project as well as to write down their answers to three “discussion questions” provided by meeting organizers.
Those questions were: “1. What do you want to know about Project Haystack? 2. What is your reaction to the Project Haystack proposal? 3. What do you want to do about Project Haystack?”
After about 30 minutes of discussion at the tables, spokespersons for each small group presented the responses of their group.
Aeriel Miller, the daughter-in-law of George Teague, spoke for their table, which was near the front of the room.
“We’d like to know how it came about,” she said. “How long will the jobs actually last? How will it impact the ecosystem? How big is it actually going to be? Why can’t it be in some other place – one that’s already semi-developed?”
Miller said that that area was not a “cash cow” for the city and developers.
She shared other questions and comments from her table while a man from that table held up a poster board that read, in big letters across the top, “Hate it!!”
Toward the end of her speech, Miller summed up her table’s view: “And why not go somewhere you’re wanted?” That question drew rousing applause from the group in the church meeting room who seemed to be unanimously opposed to the project.
Miller moved on to other possibilities for the land because each table was also encouraged to discuss alternatives to the project. She said some possibilities were to create a community garden in the area, or to work with North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University to establish research farms.
She also said that one idea from her table was for the Prison Farm to go back to holding inmates. Until last summer, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes used the farm to hold convicted prisoners who had been found guilty of non-violent crimes. While at the farm, those inmates would grow crops, harvest honey, repair automobiles, handle the county’s large-appliance recycling operation and learn trades that would help them get jobs once they left prison.
However, last summer Barnes moved all of the inmates from the Prison Farm to the spacious new county jail in downtown Greensboro – though some operations remain at the farm. Barnes did so, in part, because he knew the commissioners and others were considering developing the Prison Farm land, and the sheriff, as he explained at that time, didn’t want to be caught with his pants down if some proposed development project quickly became a reality.
Other speakers from various tables expressed a host of worries. One man said his group was concerned with light pollution that was already making it difficult for residents to enjoy the night sky. He said that new development in that area would only exacerbate the problem. He also pointed out that one proposed client of a data center park is the National Security Agency (NSA), and he wondered, he said, if the area would be filled with barbed-wire fences if the NSA or other highly secretive businesses came to the park.
Bennie Poteat, a small business owner in the area, spoke for his table. He said his group wondered if the children in the community would still be able to play and explore – or if security fences and other security measures would prohibit that.
Poteat also echoed concerns that were expressed many times during the two-hour meeting about the reason behind the proposed development.
“We’re concerned about the true intentions of this project,” he said.
Poteat, like many at the meeting, said the backers hadn’t been open about their plans.
“They haven’t been transparent,” he said.
Several people at the meeting said they live in the affected area and they wondered why they hadn’t been told about the project – even though Project Haystack plans had been going on behind the scenes for over a year and a half.
For years, county commissioners and members of the economic development community have been eyeing the Prison Farm land for potential development and, over the last few years, there has been talk of companies interested in the property – first for a solar farm and then for a Wal-Mart distribution center. Nothing came of those plans, but over the last year and a half, behind the scenes, project backers have been working with some of the world’s largest site development companies to transform the rural area into a data center park and make it a home to other technology-based businesses.
In its Oct. 24 issue, the Rhino Times revealed that the City of Greensboro had paid for a study to explore the possibility of developing the Prison Farm land and the surrounding area, and, on Oct. 31, the Rhino published detailed plans of the secret project. Those same plans were later presented in a Guilford County Board of Commissioners work session on Nov. 21, after project backers felt pressure to make a public announcement, since such a massive project was being conducted under wraps with no input from county citizens – or even from many Greensboro city councilmembers and Guilford County commissioners who were being kept in the dark.
That secrecy surrounding the project was referenced repeatedly at the meeting of concerned citizens at Friedens Lutheran Church.
Jennifer Angyal, who lives on a small farm in the area, told the group, “There’s a lot of secrecy. We don’t know who’s behind it. Who is going to benefit? Will it be us? Will it be the developer?”
She added, “There’s a lot of regret concerning loss of the rural character of the community.”
Angyal said, ”The process needs to happen in public. This needs to be public rather than somebody deciding for us what’s going to happen behind closed doors.”
One man said, “It’s been two years in the workings, but we’ve only known about it for a short time.”
Several speakers pointed out that Rock Creek Center business park is nearby and that large park has a lot of unused space. Project Haystack backers argue, however, that the data center park will need bigger plots of land than what’s available at Rock Creek Center.
Poteat summed up his table’s view: “What do we want to do about the project? Can it!”
His statement drew applause and cheers.
Another man who lives nearby said, “We moved to this area to get away from the city and have a small town life.”
Melissa Wilson Blanchard, who works at William & Carlie jewelry store in Gibsonville, spoke for her table, and, by the end of her speech, there was no question how her group felt.
“What do we want to do with the project?” she asked. “There were some answers I couldn’t write down” – a comment which drew laughter from the crowd.
Then Blanchard gave one answer that she could repeat in a church setting: “Shoot the people who came up with this.”
That comment drew a great deal of applause and seemed to sum up the feelings of many, if not all, at the meeting.
Possible actions proposed at the meeting included speaking at commissioners meetings and at the meetings of other public bodies, writing letters to the editor of local newspapers, and holding more meetings of area residents. Other ideas included working to turn the land into open space preserves and finding less intrusive ways to use the land for development. Some said that, if the park was inevitable, perhaps there was some way residents could limit the development to a smaller size.
At the meeting, Branson was asked his view of the project as a county commissioner.
“I’m against it,” Branson told the group.
He said he had been very vocal about his opposition to Project Haystack in the Rhino Times and News & Record as well as in other media, and he said he was doing what he could to fight the development.
Branson encouraged opponents of the project to contact their elected officials, and he invited anyone who wanted to express their opinion to speak at Guilford County Board of Commissioners meetings, which, he said, were usually held on the first and third Thursday of each month.
Meanwhile, project advocates continue to push forward and the county is attempting to buy the rights to the needed property.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said at the commissioners retreat on Jan. 17, that it was his understanding that Guilford County had acquired a commitment from a landowner to sell 77 acres. However, according to Guilford County Finance Department records, the county hasn’t spent any of the $30,000 that commissioners approved on Nov. 21 to advance the project.
That money was to be used to purchase land options and to hire an attorney to create an “inter-local agreement” between the five parties called on in the proposal to work together: Guilford and Alamance counties, the Town of Gibsonville, and the cities of Burlington and Greensboro. Guilford County also hasn’t yet hired the attorney who’s expected to negotiate the inter-local agreement.
Lawing said recently that there was a feeling that it made sense to wait to hire the attorney until there had been more meetings between the five local governments.
Lawing also said he’s uncertain when he’ll request more funds from the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to advance the project. On Nov. 21, when Lawing made his request for the first $30,000, he warned the commissioners that he might be back before the board relatively soon to request more money. However, now it doesn’t appear as though that request will come anytime soon – and it might never come at all.
Backers of the project have been talking behind the scenes with NC Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, since road enhancements would be needed if the data center park is built.
At the Jan. 23 meeting at the church, many expressed concerns about the traffic the data center park would bring – both in the construction phase and after it’s built.
At the commissioners retreat, Lawing mentioned a letter from DOT Division Engineer J.M. Mills, who sent the letter to Mike Solomon, a project engineer for the Timmons Group, the company hired by Greensboro to conduct the study of the area.
In that letter, Mills wrote that the DOT can “improve access by providing near-term transportation improvements to the existing roads with little or no right of way required. The near-term transportation improvements include minor widening, turn lanes, resurfacing, and improving the strength of paved roadways. It is anticipated that adding additional lanes to these local roads will not be required as a result of Project Haystack as these roads can generally serve up to 17,000 vehicles per day under ideal conditions.”
That will likely come as news to those who had to make it to the church that Thursday night on the small winding two-lane roads that snake their way through the area that’s proposed for the giant development.
The letter from the DOT does call for new roads to be built in the future if the project becomes a reality, but it doesn’t say where those roads would be built.
“Several of these improvements include expressways and boulevards to be constructed on new locations as well as extensions of existing roads to improve connectivity … The final location of these proposed future roads are yet to be determined and are subject to change.”
The next move is in the hands of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, who will decide whether or not to explore the project’s potential further and spend more money for that purpose.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Bill Bencini said there are many complex issues at play, and he said that he, for one, is highly reluctant to gamble $103 million in taxpayer money while no data or technology firms had signed on yet.
Bencini said that if the data park could get firm commitments from big players – like Google, Apple or government agencies – before the county and its partners shell out all that money, then the chances for the data center park would be much better than they are now.
Bencini also suggested it might be possible to do a smaller version of the project in place of the giant 2,000-acre park that has been proposed.
BY Scott D. Yost
January 30, 2014, Updated: 2-10-14 6:15pm
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