October 18, 2012
The Guilford County
Prison Farm and the surrounding area is safe for now.
On Wednesday, Oct. 10 the Guilford County
Planning Board voted down a request to rezone hundreds of acres at the county's Prison Farm and – though anyone in the county has a right to appeal the decision – those who pushed for the rezoning have decided not to.
Commissioner Paul Gibson said this week it was his understanding that advocates for the rezoning were going to give up the current effort, which has faced a mountain of criticism on many fronts.
"I think they're going to try to go about it the right way," Gibson said.
Gibson said that, instead of ramming through a rezoning quickly, advocates of creating a corporate park at the Prison Farm site were going to first try to come up with a development plan, work out necessary agreements, and get approval from the Board of Commissioners, before any future rezoning attempt.
Right after the Planning Board voted down the request, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston and others said the decision would be appealed within days. Now, however, that appears not to be the case.
It was a very strange and interesting sight in the commissioners' meeting room in the Old Guilford County
Court House on Oct. 10: Alston, the most powerful man in Guilford County
government, was trying to talk at the meeting but he had to ask permission, was relegated to speaking from the podium on the floor, was instructed to limit his comments to one minute, and, for a while before Alston said his piece, there was a discussion as to whether he would even be allowed to speak at all.
The reason Alston – who, as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, is usually able to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, for as long as he wants – was being ordered around, is that this wasn't a meeting of the Guilford County
Board of Commissioners, but was instead a meeting of the Guilford County
Planning Board – an independent county board that happens to meet in the commissioners' meeting room, and a board that, on this night, showed exactly how independent it was.
The Planning Board voted down 5 to 2 a request by Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox – one strongly supported by Alston – to rezone 618 acres at the Guilford County
Prison Farm from Public Institutional (PI) to Conditional Use, Corporate Park (CU-CP). Fox had requested the rezoning and then informed the commissioners in an email on Wednesday, Sept. 26 that she intended to rezone the property.
The Prison Farm land has been in the spotlight ever since Tuesday, Sept. 11, when the county commissioners were told by economic development officials that a supposedly large unknown company – codenamed "Swordfish" by economic development staff – was considering investing $100 million to open a food distribution plant at the farm.
The next day the commissioners got word the company was no longer interested in Guilford County
as a potential site for the project. However, that didn't end the push by Alston, Fox and Greensboro Economic Development Alliance President Dan Lynch to rezone the property. Though Fox wasn't at the Oct. 10 Planning Board meeting, both Lynch and Alston were there and spoke in favor of the rezoning.
The 35 or 40 people in the audience, many of whom own property near the Prison Farm, seemed monolithic in opposition to the request.
Also at the meeting were Commissioners Billy Yow, Kirk Perkins and Linda Shaw, as well as Guilford County
Sheriff BJ Barnes.
At the hearing, Guilford County
Deputy Planning Director Les Eger began by describing the property in question and laying out the facts. Eger told the Planning Board that the move was not consistent with the Guilford County
Northeast Area Plan adopted in 2003. He added that some conditions placed on the rezoning would help minimize the negative effects on the area and the residents around the property.Guilford County
Attorney Mark Payne spoke next, and Payne opened with the understatement of the year.
"There are certain unusual situations," Payne said of the rezoning request.
Payne didn't go into many specifics as to why this was an "unusual" case; however one big elephant in the room was the fact that members of the Board of Commissioners are strongly divided over the proposed rezoning, and the Planning Board members are appointed by the Board of Commissioners – so a vote by the commissioners could remove those Planning Board members.
Another interesting thing about this rezoning is that, though Payne said repeatedly the application was made by "the county," the application was actually made by Fox acting with no authority from the Board of Commissioners.
Payne told the Planning Board that, just because the county was the one making the request, the case didn't deserve any special consideration.
"The county has the same obligations as anyone else," Payne said.
Payne said rezoning the property doesn't change the actual use – only the potential.
is seeking to change the possible use," Payne said. "Our goal is to develop the property for economic development."
Many county officials have made it well known recently that they want to turn the Prison Farm into a corporate park at some point.
Payne said that, the current use as a Prison Farm would clearly be grandfathered in and would remain so as those operations continue.
The Prison Farm – the only county-run facility of its type in the state – was established in 1934. It has been run by the Guilford County
Sheriff's Department since 1998. Barnes uses the farm to hold convicted inmates and teach them trades and employment skills while they're incarcerated. Those inmates work at farming and honey production, and they run a greenhouse and sell plants and related items to the public.
Payne said he wanted to turn the floor over to Lynch. However, before the county attorney could do so, a very feisty Joe Wood, a former Guilford County
commissioner who now serves on the Planning Board, had a question that had been on everyone's mind.
"Why right now?" Wood asked Payne.
Wood made a point that Yow and others had been making since they first learned Fox had filed the request to have the land rezoned immediately: If a company did decide to open shop on the Prison Farm land, the rezoning would be the easiest and quickest part of that process.
It would take an estimated 18 months to two years to run water to the 140-acre site near Howerton Road that, according to Lynch, is the choicest part of the land for developers – and necessary road expansion by the state could take years.
"At most, rezoning would take 60 to 90 days," Wood said.
Wood pointed out there was no water and sewer available at the site, and no agreement in place to provide those needs. He said road expansion by the state could take years.
"Who knows from the state?" he said. "It might be 2023."
Wood said he had driven around the area extensively and it would certainly need significant road expansion for development, but the state was known to take its time in such matters. He said one could look at the time the State of North Carolina was taking to build the loop around Greensboro as just one example of what to expect....continued on page 2