Guilford County has hired Greensboro attorney Marc Isaacson, a partner at Isaacson Isaacson Sheridan Fountain & Leftwich, to help the county obtain permission from the City of Greensboro to build a county-run animal shelter at 3307 Burlington Road in east Greensboro.

County officials wanted to keep that fact secret; however, Commissioner Carolyn Coleman’s interrogation of county staff at a Thursday, July 14 county commissioners meeting spilled those beans all over the place.

The county’s construction of a new shelter on county-owned property next to the Guilford County Agricultural Center has created a lot of lively debate in the last two months, and the July discussion was no exception.

Coleman’s questions led to the revelation that Guilford County had decided to hire Isaacson at a closed session. Coleman said the move was obviously designed to help sway the opinion of city councilmembers, but county staff said Isaacson was brought in for his technical expertise on the county’s request of a special-use permit that would allow the shelter to be built.

The behind-the-scenes hiring of Isaacson is just the latest in a series of events that has become the ongoing drama connected with the county’s attempt to put its new animal shelter in east Greensboro – where black elected officials have said they want to see more retail and entertainment instead of a shelter.

So far the heated dispute has come down largely along racial lines. On Thursday, May 5, the three black Guilford County commissioners – Coleman, Ray Trapp and Carlvena Foster – all voted against putting the shelter at the Burlington Road location, while the board’s six white commissioners voted to make the request to the city.

After that move by the board, two black Greensboro city councilmembers – Sharon Hightower and Jamal Fox – were extremely critical of the county’s attempt. They said the east Greensboro site needs positive development rather than animal shelters and landfills, which they put in the same category.

At the July 14 commissioners meeting, county staff had planned for the board to move the funding process for the shelter forward. However, that item had been removed from the agenda and Coleman wanted to know why.

The short answer is that Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips and Vice Chairman Alan Branson didn’t feel the site selection process for the shelter was far enough along to move the funding process forward.

Coleman also wanted to know why county staff hadn’t made the special-use permit request of the city. She said the board voted to make that request, but added, “I’ve not heard anything else.”

The Board of Commissioners unquestionably voted 6 to 3 in May to request a special-use permit for the shelter. However, a cold reaction by some city councilmembers now has many – including Coleman – wondering if the county will ever even actually make the request at all. If the county knows the votes aren’t there, the request might die on the vine.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said the request had not been made yet because the details were still under discussion.

“Facilities staff has met several times with the city to determine and clarify exactly what the request should be,” Lawing told Coleman.

Lawing added that there was some debate whether Guilford County should request a special-use permit from the city or make a rezoning request.

One very interesting moment at the July 14 meeting, which wasn’t lost on Coleman, was when Lawing started a sentence with “If.”

“If we decide to move forward with the request,” Lawing told Coleman, “we only want to make it one time.”

“Maybe I’m missing something,” Coleman said to the manager, who she often disagrees with. “But I thought we voted – I thought you all voted – to move forward with that.”

County staff reiterated that there were a number of technical issues that needed to be sorted out for a request of this type before it could be made.

“Now who are we seeking legal advice from?” Coleman asked.

“We’re talking to Marc Isaacson, who deals with a lot of zoning issues with the city, and he’s advising us,” Lawing said.

“And how long do you think it will take for him to advise us?” Coleman asked.

Lawing said he expected a recommendation from Isaacson by the end of July.

“The citizens of that area are concerned about what’s happening and, frankly, I don’t know; so I’m just trying to understand what’s happening,” Coleman said.

She added, “This is the first I’ve heard of Isaacson and Isaacson.”

Phillips told her that the board had decided to make the move.

“We all came to that conclusion,” he said.

“When did you do that?” Coleman asked.

Phillips said he didn’t know the date of the meeting.

“And you voted to have outside council?” she said.

At that point some fellow commissioners told her that it was discussed in closed session – which brought chuckles from some in the audience because now the point of that closed session was moot.

She said perhaps it was a closed session she missed, but she added that she would still like to know about these decisions after they happen.

After the July 14 meeting was over, several county officials pointed out, off the record, that Coleman attended that closed session when the discussion took place.

If Guilford County does end up making the special-use permit or a rezoning request for the new animal shelter to be built on Burlington Road, county staff seems to think that the way the request is structured could determine whether or not the city approves the request. Of course, Fox has stated repeatedly that the City Council will not approve the move – and that presumably means whether that request comes in the form of a special-use permit or a rezoning request. The proposed site in in Fox’s district.

Coleman, who is greatly opposed to the plan to put the shelter on Burlington Road, wanted to make sure at the meeting that there was no way Guilford County’s strategy could bypass the City Council entirely.

Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said it was his understanding that, whether the county made a special-use permit or a rezoning request, it would end up before the Greensboro City Council – since any decision permitting the shelter would no doubt be appealed to the council.

Coleman said none of that explained why the county had hired Isaacson. She said that when the Board of Commissioners decided to make the request, everyone knew the decision would end up in the council’s hands.

“We knew that before we voted on this – right?” Coleman said. “I’m hearing from some city councilmembers that we’re polling them to see how they would vote on the issue, and I’m just trying to find out why we are doing that if in fact we voted – and I did not vote for it – for it to go to City Council.”

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne explained, “You need a lawyer to walk through the zoning, and he [Isaacson] has familiarity and experience in moving zoning matters through. There are a lot of different ways to do it and it’s a long involved process.”

Payne said Guilford County’s hiring of Isaacson wasn’t meant to find a way to circumvent the City Council and said the county was merely trying to inquire as to which method city officials preferred the county to use when it makes its request. Payne said that on one scenario it would only end up in front of the Greensboro City Council if it is appealed, but he added that the county has no expectation that the matter wont be appealed. Therefore, with either approach, he said, the county’s request is going to end up before the City Council.

Coleman asked, “So at this point we’re just waiting on Mr. Isaacson to tell which way he thinks he can win this?”

Payne said the county was attempting to “get feedback” from the city about the best way to proceed with the request.

At the meeting, Phillips also stated that he doesn’t think anyone was under the illusion that the issue could “bypass” the Greensboro City Council.

The fact that it almost certainly will not be able to elude the City Council does not bode well for the request. Ever since the Board of Commissioners voted to make the request, city councilmembers representing that area have announced their plans to fight it. The land on Burlington Road falls in City Council District 2, represented by Fox, and right across Burlington Road is the city’s District 1, which is represented by Hightower. Hightower said in May, “I’m sick and tired of people trying to come dump every negative thing on our community. I’m pissed off.”

Many Republican commissioners like the fact that Guilford County wouldn’t have to buy land if the shelter is built on the county-owned property next to the Agricultural Center, and they also point out that the location is near where Guilford County Animal Control picks up the majority of animals. Several Republican commissioners have also said that a well-built, well-run animal shelter won’t be a negative for the community as opponents have claimed.

Phillips said before the July 14 meeting that that it was a mistake to characterize him as trying to convince the city leaders that the city should let the shelter be built there.

“What I’m asking is for them to have an open mind,“ he said.

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue said after the July 14 meeting that Isaacson’s hiring certainly had a political purpose as well as legal one.

“I think it’s both,” Perdue said. “Before you get to the Planning Board, you want to make sure your presentation of your case is as thorough and effective as possible.”

Perdue also said that, while there are other more geographically central locations for an animal shelter, the Burlington Road site is fairly central from an operational point of view, which could lead to a lot of savings over time, he said.

The county may end up building the new shelter on the current site at 4525 W. Wendover Ave., as Coleman wants to do, but Perdue said he’s concerned about the heavy traffic in that area.

County staff has said it will add to the cost to the project to build it there, and they also are concerned, if the new shelter is built on the old site, about what to do with the animals at the current shelter while a new shelter is being built.