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Can Greensboro 'Hoarders' house become a B&B? Owners, city await judge's ruling.

GREENSBORO — Owners of the historic mansion previously featured on the television show “Hoarders” went to court Monday for permission to turn part of it into a bed-and-breakfast.

They appealed to Guilford Superior Court the city Zoning Commission’s decision to deny the special use permit needed to operate in the single-family residential district of Fisher Park.

“What fact could they have looked at to support their denial?” J. Patrick Haywood, an attorney representing the property owners, said during the hearing. “The zoning commission didn’t make any findings of fact.”

But Deputy City Attorney Terri Jones asked the court to uphold the zoning commission’s decision.

Judge Eric Morgan of Forsyth County did not issue a ruling on Monday.

He’ll do so after reviewing the information and briefs from attorneys for the city and E&V Properties, the real estate development company run by property owners Michael and Eric Fuko-Rizzo.

The Fuko-Rizzos bought the property in September 2016, and have since cleaned up and rejuvenated the mansion and its 1.6 acres.

Morgan could uphold or reverse the zoning commission’s decision, or return the case to the commission for further proceedings.

If Morgan finds that the commission made only procedural errors, for example, he could ask that they be corrected.

Known as Hillside, the brick and half-timbered mansion at 301 Fisher Park Circle was built in 1929 for Julian Price, the president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co.

For years, its beauty was hidden under overgrown foliage and clutter, accumulated by then-owner Sandra Cowart. Cowart lost the house to foreclosure, and the Fuko-Rizzos purchased it.

In January 2017, the A&E television show “Hoarders” aired an episode filmed there, showing a work crew emptying it of Cowart’s possessions.

The Fuko-Rizzos have since restored it to its former glory.

At its May 20 meeting, the zoning commission voted 4-3 against a motion to approve the bed-and-breakfast permit request for the mansion.

City staff and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission had recommended the special-use permit, the latter saying that a bed-and-breakfast would be compatible with the goal of the long-term preservation of the house.

At the May zoning hearing, the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association board spoke in favor of the permit, with conditions.

But about eight residents spoke against it, voicing concerns about parking and noise.

Haywood filed the appeal on June 28.

“Petitioners’ proposed use of the property as a bed-and-breakfast met all requirements set forth (in the zoning ordinance),” the appeal said.

Among those requirements: The owner or operator must live on site. The Fuko-Rizzos moved into part of the house with their 4-year-old twin daughters in June.

They had planned to rent out five other bedrooms in the 31-room, 90-year-old house to guests.

The owners agreed it would not be an an event center, a fear expressed by neighbors.

They agreed to comply with the zoning rules for bed-and-breakfasts in a residential neighborhood.

Rules also require that it not be within 400 feet of a rooming house or other bed-and-breakfast, it allows no more than six guest rooms, and guests can’t stay longer than 15 days within a 60-day period.

The owners agreed to more conditions — to make guest records available to the zoning administrator, locate required parking on site and prohibit bands, DJs, amplified speakers or instruments outdoors at any time or indoors after 10 p.m.

But during Monday’s hearing, Deputy City Attorney Jones said that the zoning commission did not find that the applicants had met their burden to receive the special-use permit.

For the zoning commission to grant the permit, it had to conclude that the proposed use would not be detrimental to the health and safety of those living and working nearby; that it would provide a service or facility contributing to the neighborhood’s well-being, and that it would be in harmony with its surroundings.

“If the zoning commission doesn’t make those findings, then the special use permit shall not be granted,” Jones said.

Morgan did not indicate when he would make his ruling.

For N.C.’s young farmers, ‘it’s more about the lifestyle than the living’

MADISON — Ryan Clark is 13 years younger than the tractor he keeps parked in the field below his house in Rockingham County.

The 1974 International 140 is the first one he ever rode, and he couldn’t resist buying it when his grandfather’s estate was auctioned off after his death. Clark, 33, uses it so infrequently that a field of watermelons bloomed around it, trapping it in place for the foreseeable future.

Today’s project — setting up a drip irrigation system — wouldn’t need it anyway. The hard work of tilling soil into long, neat rows, running short feeder hoses down the rows and covering them with thin black landscaping fabric was done days before. All that’s left is to connect the feeder hoses to the main one and then to connect the entire hose network to a pump. His one-and-three-quarter acres is larger than a football field, but not by much. It shouldn’t take long.

On such a gray September afternoon, it’s hard to imagine a field like this blooming into a bright red patch of strawberries. A few weeks from now, Clark will plant seedlings that he expects to blossom into a crimson sea of berries he’ll see as he steps out of his house every morning.

“When we pick this field, it’ll be like, ‘I did that,’” Clark says. “You see the results of your hard work.”

Fridays are easy days. Clark will only end up working from 4:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. tending to poultry houses, checking on cow pastures and wheat fields across Rockingham County, and wrapping up a few smaller projects that had slipped through the cracks during the week.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done before he gets his berries on the market. This is his first time growing strawberries, and although he thinks he’s doing everything right, he can’t be sure of how exactly they’ll turn out.

“It’s like watching your kid grow up,” he laughs.

Clark likes to say that no other job requires longer hours and harder work for less money than farming. It’s a hard claim to verify scientifically, but it’s true that farming has always been a tough way to make a living. Farming practices have come a long way since Clark first hopped on his grandfather’s International in the 1980s, but no new technology can completely replace the combination of hard work and luck needed to run a successful farm against unpredictable weather, pests and livestock behavior.

What’s clear is that, looking at the numbers, farmers and family farms are aging out.

The average American farmer is 58 years old and getting older, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s recently-released 2017 Census of Agriculture. Farmers like Clark who are younger than 35 make up just 5,572 — 7 percent — of North Carolina’s 74,958 farmers.

North Carolina’s farmers hardly need to look at a survey to see the nature of agriculture in the state changing. In places like Alamance County, dairies and cattle farms have become outlet malls and housing developments. In Rockingham County, where development has been slower, the biggest draw for people Clark’s age is a new outdoor adventure park with water tubing and camping.

“As these old farmers age out, young farmers aren’t stepping up to fill the gap,” Clark said. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think they’ll ever return.”

Despite Clark’s fears, many young North Carolinians still see the time as being ripe to enter the farming industry. The U.S.D.A.’s recorded number of young farmers nationwide increased from 257,454 farmers to 285,439 between its 2012 and 2017 surveys.

While even the most optimistic analysts don’t project these new farmers to replace the production lost by older farmers, midsize and family farms like Clark Family Farms may play a vital role in preserving North Carolina’s agrarian heritage in a time when an estimated 760 acres of farm land in N.C. are lost annually.

A passion

Travis Covington, 30, runs Hawfields Cattle Company on Alamance County land bought by his grandfather after the Korean War. For him, farming is a way to stay connected with his ancestors.

“(For) some of us, it is in our blood, and we will spend every dollar we can ever make just to keep it running,” Covington said. “Part of it is, we don’t know what else we’d do without it.”

Like many young farmers, Covington farms while maintaining a full-time day job — in his case, as a facilities employee at UNC-Chapel Hill. Almost two-thirds of America’s young farmers hold non-farming careers as their primary occupations, and only 21 percent perform no off-farm work in a given year. Clark only started farming full-time two years ago after working as a firefighter, an HVAC technician and a maintenance supervisor at Piedmont Distillers.

Covington plans to work at UNC until he can earn a pension before starting to farm full-time. That won’t happen for another 26 years, but he tears up at the thought of spending all day in his fields.

“If I don’t have cows, I miss them so bad I can’t stand it,” he said. “We’ll go on vacation, and five days in, I’m just ready to get home and check cows.”

He’s not alone.

“Cows are my tranquility,” Clark said. “Sometimes, I’ll come flip a bucket over and just sit and watch them.”

“The technology in farming excites me,” Clark said. “It terrifies me, too. Having to stay up-to-date is a challenge.”

Not all paths into agriculture are so meticulously laid out.

Justin Walker became the head of a farm at just 20 years old after his grandfather’s unexpected death left nearly 1,000 acres of corn, wheat and tobacco in Caswell County without a farmer. No one else in his family was passionate enough about farming to head an agricultural operation — especially not an unprofitable one at risk of foreclosure due to debts amassed during grandfather John Walker’s lifetime.

“Technically, I just inherited a problem,” Walker, now 27, said in a phone interview. “The first two years, I did really badly.”

Walker’s Caswell County neighbors figured he was too young to run a successful farm when he started in 2012. If not for his youth and willingness to experiment, however, his farm likely wouldn’t still be in business today.

Walker started studying agricultural sciences at N.C. A&T State University in late 2011, correctly assuming he might be the one to take over the farm once his grandfather died. Both in class and in the field, he learned that his grandfather’s approach to farming was not sustainable for a midsize farm.

He pivoted away from the farm’s traditional crops and became both a grower and distributor of table-ready produce. He now sells directly to consumers from his own market truck, which he funded through a grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Walker calls his new operation Double J Farms after the first initial he and his grandfather shared. After taking a loss in his first year, Walker came close to breaking even in 2014. In 2015, the year he moved away from conventional crops, he turned a profit.

As his operation picked up steam, he often found himself as the youngest farm head at agriculture events. At a national conference in 2013, he learned why: As far as anyone could tell, he was the youngest independent farmer in America.

“I said, ‘That cannot be true,’ ” he said. “But they were saying that all other farmers that are in their 20s are under their father or grandfather or uncle or something else. You’re the only farmer that age on their own.”

Strawberry fields

If all goes well, Clark’s strawberry field will make about $10,000 at the market once it blooms. He’s done everything he can to set himself up for success, having spent countless hours both in the fields and on the Strawberry Growers Information page on N.C. State University’s agriculture website.

“You learn every day,” he said. “If you ever quit learning, you can forget it.”

Of course, the fact that he’s able to farm full-time at all means he’s already reaping the rewards of a decade’s worth of hard work. Other careers might earn him more money for the number of hours he works, but no other career would allow him to build his own business while maintaining that all-important sense of tranquility.

“It’s more about the lifestyle,” he said.

Part of that lifestyle is staying connected with other young farmers. Statewide and national organizations, including the National Young Farmers Coalition and the N.C. Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers program, exist to provide community and support for young farmers.

“(Our) program is all about raising up a new generation of engaged and energetic agriculture leaders,” N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten wrote in a statement. “If our young farmers are any indication of the future of agriculture, we’re in good hands.”

Like Covington, Walker is still waiting for his shot as a full-time farmer. His day job is at UPS, and he dreams of a day when he can “operate his farm at 110 percent.”

“Anytime I’m farming, I really don’t feel like I’m working,” he said. “I just feel like I’m pursuing my favorite hobby that I like to do and getting paid for it.”

Covington said this attitude highlights one of the most important qualities in a successful farmer: You have to be a little crazy.

“I laughed at my grandaddy and at his brother when they were old men and I was a little kid and they would think that way,” Covington said. “Some of us have it, and some of us don’t.”

Like in any job, there are bad days. “Having it” doesn’t make a July afternoon less sweaty, it doesn’t make a field easier to plow, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that a new field of strawberries will turn out perfectly.

“Some days, everything goes wrong,” Covington said. “Everything breaks, you hate it, and you question why you do it.”

When it’s good, though, no other high comes close.

“I’m going to calve in October, and it’ll be Christmas morning for two months straight,” Covington said. “Christmas morning is the closest thing I can explain it to, and that still doesn’t do it justice.”

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Guilford County Commissioners OK $600,000 of $10 million to study school security needs

GREENSBORO Guilford County Commissioners tapped the brakes on school district plans to spend $10 million on school security. Instead, the board last week approved $600,0000, for now, for the district to study its options.

In June, commissioners approved a $10 million bond for capital expenditures for safety and security improvements for the schools. The school board followed up last month, voting to request the commissioners immediately put $10 million into a fund for school leaders to use on school security and safety projects.

Superintendent Sharon Contreras and her staff had outlined plans of how they wanted to spend the money. They had anticipated spending about $4 million of the money to better secure doors across the district, $2.5 million for communication systems, $2 million for security cameras and surveillance systems, $685,000 for fire alarm systems and $615,000 for student photo-badge printing stations.

Instead of signing over the full $10 million right away, however, commissioners want a study before the security projects proceed.

The schools will use the $600,000 to bring in outside expertise to help them look at three key areas, Chief Operations Officer Scott McCully said. Much of the focus, he said, would be on potential dead spots or poor reception for walkie-talkies or cellphones in the school district, and how that could be improved.

Both McCully and Alan Branson, the commissioners’ chairman, said Commissioner Alan Perdue brought up valuable points and information in discussing the radio connectivity issues. Perdue is a former director of Guilford County Emergency Services. Jim Albright, the district’s current director of emergency management, has also recommended the study, according to McCully.

“I think we all agree that this is absolutely a study that needs to take place,” McCully said.

The school district will also seek outside advice on surveillance and access control for the schools, McCully said. He is confident the study will build the case to commissioners for upgraded safety equipment for the schools.

Branson said he and one or two other commissioners met with McCully, Contreras, and school board Chairman Deena Hayes-Greene early last week to discuss the $10 million request. The commissioners then discussed it in a closed session on Thursday before voting to approve the $600,000.

Commissioners, Branson said, had some questions and concerns about the plans the district outlined for the $10 million. He wondered, for example, about the plan to use some of the money for fire alarm systems. Should that be in the budget as a regular occurring expense, rather than a one-time project?

Given that they are using a bond to pay for it, Branson said, commissioners might like the $10 million to be spent on projects that will have lasting value up to two decades from now.

Selling bonds essentially allows the county to spend money on a project upfront but pay for it over 20 years or so.

Branson and McCully said $10 million isn’t enough to make all the changes helpful for school security and that some projects may need to be funded as part of a potentially larger bond offering associated with an upcoming school facilities master plan.