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.
"Guilford County 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.
Wood, who was almost shouting at times, reiterated that rezoning the property would be the least of the concerns for anyone putting a business at the Prison Farm.
"Why do we need to do this right now?" he asked.
Planning Board Member Charles Nelson had the same question.
"It's not going to take very long to zone it," Nelson said, adding that water and sewer would take much longer.
Payne said the rezoning was just one step in developing the land, and Payne agreed that addressing issues like water, sewer and road expansion were necessary as well.
"The two are not mutually exclusive," Payne said of the rezoning and the other moves required.
Lynch added to Payne's answer. Lynch said rezoning the land now would help sell companies on the land. He said companies look for any reason not to build somewhere, and the last thing a company wants to do, Lynch said, is go through a contentious rezoning because the county hadn't rezoned the land in preparation.
Lynch said the property under consideration – especially the 140 acres of land where the Prison Farm operations are centered – was highly attractive for development. He said one benefit was that the land had a single owner and a company wouldn't have to get 15 or 20 property owners to agree to sell.
Lynch said the 140 prime acres of the 618 in the request had no streams, wetlands or easements but it did have, he said, a "phenomenal" electrical infrastructure because of major power lines running nearby.
"It's been farmed for decades – there's no site like it anywhere in the county," Lynch said.
In a public hearing for a rezoning request, each side gets 20 minutes to speak and five minutes for rebuttal. The clock stopped whenever Planning Board members asked questions, but, still, by the time Payne and Lynch had spoken, there was exactly one minute left for the advocates – of which there weren't many.
Before Alston spoke, Wood said, "I question the legitimacy of Mr. Alston speaking."
Wood said that, if the decision is appealed, it would come before Alston and the Board of Commissioners, and Wood also brought up the fact that the commissioners appoint the Planning Board.
Wood and other members of the Planning Board asked the county attorney his opinion as to whether Alston should speak.
Payne said, "It's kind of interesting."
Payne added that the Planning Board could choose to hear from the commissioners and then decide how much weight to place on what the commissioners said. Payne said the conflict of interest issue could be addressed down the line if the Board of Commissioners heard an appeal.
Several Planning Board members said they wouldn't be intimidated in any way by commissioners speaking, and Planning Board Member Hurley Derrickson said that he, for one, wanted to hear what all parties had to say.
"We should listen to them," he said. "We've heard from the county attorney."
Alston spoke but there was only a minute left. He quoted a Bible verse that stated, where there is no vision, the people will perish. Alston also said Guilford County had just lost a firm with many new jobs because the county hadn't been proactive enough, and he added that, ultimately, the new corporate park is expected to bring "3,524 new jobs and $1 billion in new investment." He said it will also add an estimated $74 million annually to the county's property tax revenue.
It's not exactly clear where Alston pulled those numbers from, the chairman was being awfully exact and optimistic for a fictional corporate park that so far doesn't have one occupant.
"This is why we want to do this," Alston said.
When it came time for the opponents to speak, Yow was ready to go. Yow had been preparing for the speech ever since he found out Fox had requested the rezoning.
Yow said that Fox's request to zone the property for a corporate park was absolutely inconsistent with the Northeast Area Plan adopted by both boards.
"This Planning Board passed a northeast plan unanimously," Yow said.
He added that the area use plan had been sent to the Board of Commissioners, which also passed it unanimously.
Yow added that Fox had filed for the rezoning, not the Board of Commissioners, and he said there are two places on the rezoning request where Fox could have signed her name – either as "property owner" or as a "representative." Fox signed the request as the property owner.
"Brenda Jones Fox is not the owner of this property," Yow said forcefully. "She signed it as the owner; apparently she believes it."
He mentioned that, earlier in the discussion, Payne had said that Fox asked to put conditions on the rezoning.
"Who is she to tell you to put on conditions?" Yow asked, adding that she had no authority to do so.
Yow said the property belonged to about 438,000 citizens, and he said those owners had never had a say because Fox had gone ahead on her own with no authority from the board.
Yow said the Board of Commissioners did adopt a conditional motion to move forward with developing the farm, but he said the motion stated specifically that it was contingent upon three conditions: that, within 90 days, the county get a firm commitment from a company, and that the company commit to bringing a minimum of $85 million and at least 400 jobs.
"Dan don't have that," Yow said.
At a county commissioners meeting, on Thursday, Oct. 4, Yow made a motion to get the Board of Commissioners to kill Fox's rezoning request, but his motion failed 5 to 6. There has never been a motion from the commissioners to rezone the land. However, Payne argues that's essentially what the commissioners did when they voted down Yow's motion.
Payne told the Planning Board, "I think when the board says don't stop, that means go."
At the Planning Board meeting, Yow said no one would find a bigger advocate of development in Guilford County than he was, but he added that the Board of Commissioners was divided on the issue. He said that, since the board had never made a request to rezone the property, this was a "third-party rezoning" asked for by someone other than the owner.
Yow pointed out that there had been no study, the current zoning was not in harmony with the area use plan; there was no water or sewer available, no company lined up and no authority for the manager to even make the request to rezone the land.
With all the political interplay between Fox and some commissioners, and between the commissioners and the Planning Board, it was almost forgotten that there were plenty of people whose lives would be dramatically affected if the rezoning passed. The company that turned down the county would have brought 500 to 700 truck trips through the area each day. Every additional company in a corporate park would increase the traffic, and that's just one way the lives of those who live in the rural area would be affected.
Anne Cassebaum, who lives in the area, said, "A corporate park would feel like an alien landing."
She said soil and water advocates had worked for years to preserve the soil and water in that area.
Jack Jezorek, who serves on Guilford County's Open Space Committee, said, "The rezoning flies in the face of reason."
Jezorek said he had worked hard on a commission to help conserve parks and open space in the area and he said that work appears to have been all for naught.
"I am dumbfounded by this and feel a sense of betrayal," he said.
Other area residents including Commissioner Kirk Perkins – who represents many of those who would be affected – also spoke in opposition to the request.
Opponents spoke until their allotted time ran out.
In the question-and-answer period, Wood said the Planning Board, at every rezoning hearing, asks this as a first and primary question: "Did you, as the applicant, sit down at a meeting with the landowners and try to work this out – did you do that?"
Eger and Payne both said they were not aware of any attempt to do so, and the loud grumbled noes from the audience confirmed that no such attempt had been made.
The Planning Board voted down Fox's rezoning request, with Wood, Nelson, Al Leonard, Terri Gibson and Jeff Deal, the chairman of the Planning Board voting no. Derrickson and Dianne Walton-Munden voted yes.