Guilford County could enter into an agreement with the High Point YMCA, allowing the nonprofit to manage and oversee a 116-acre nature preserve adjacent to its property.
The details of the agreement are unclear but would most likely include a deed transfer from the county to the Y. But the organization would not be allowed to develop the property nor profit from it, and if anything were to happen to the YMCA, the preserve would revert to the county.
Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Hank Henning approached YMCA CEO David Ozmore several weeks ago to see if the organization would be interested in overseeing the Rich Fork Preserve.
The discussion came after Henning was approached by property owners living close to Rich Fork who had concerns about parking and trespassing, given that the property has no designated parking lot or public access point.
“That was a big part of my efforts to find a compromise that would benefit the neighbors and the community as a whole,” Henning said. “Allowing the Y to operate it takes the burden off the county to allocate funds to build trails and host recreational activities that the community may want.”
Ozmore attended a recent meeting of the Rich Fork Preserve, Hedgecock Farm and Conner Trail Working Committee to speak to members about the potential agreement.
At that meeting, Ozmore told committee members that the property — adjacent to the Hartley Drive YMCA on the preserve’s north end — would be used for recreational purposes, including hiking, running, outdoor education and possibly mountain biking, historically a sticking point for former members of the Guilford Open Space Program.
The Rich Fork Preserve was bought for nearly $1 million in 2012 as part of the Open Space Program, established to purchase and preserve undisturbed and undeveloped land for conservation and recreation.
As part of the plan approved in 2000 by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the commissioners, a citizen advisory board was created to provide leadership and oversight of the program, in tandem with one full-time staff person from the planning department.
A $10 million bond proposal approved by voters in 2004 was used to acquire 14 preserves, totaling 1,770 acres, that range from small urban orchards to large wilderness areas. Because the properties were secured in part for environmental reasons, such as protecting water quality and plant and wildlife habitats, the primary suggested recreation was foot traffic.
The Open Space committee was dismissed in December 2014 by the current Board of Commissioners. A new county master plan for parks, trails and open space, approved in November 2014, defines the properties as “passive parks,” with a broader spectrum of permitted activities, including mountain biking, horseback riding, campsites and restrooms.
That change in philosophy didn’t sit well with environmentalists in the county, some of whom were upset that Henning had approached the Y without first seeing how preservationists felt about the matter.
The fundamental missions of the groups are different, said Anne Hice, former member of the Open Space Committee and a current member of the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
“You go back to why that land was purchased and what the property owners were told. They’ve been back-stabbed, almost, with saying this property will be preserved in perpetuity,” she said. “The mission of the Y is not the same mission as Open Space, and they’ve tried to change it — but that doesn’t negate what the citizens voted for in 2004.”
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said this week that deeding the property to the YMCA is legal under the terms of the original bond agreement as long as the preserve remains open to the public and is used primarily for recreational purposes.
“That property will always have to be used for open space and recreational use,” Payne said. “But that’s a fairly broad categorization.”
Payne also confirmed that Henning was acting within the scope of his authority by approaching the organization to gauge its interest.
“Anyone can have that type of conversation, whether staff member or commissioner, because all they’re doing is saying, ‘Hey, are you guys open to this?’ ” Payne said. “If so, then it goes to the governing board, and the governing board will make a decision.”
But doing it without input from the original property owners or the former Open Space Committee members is wrong, Hice said, and sets a dangerous precedent.
“The biggest point is trust in government,” she said. “To start selling off part of the 1,700 acres that are in open space now will have a domino effect, in my opinion, and it will no longer exist down the road.”
The commissioners will hear details about the Rich Fork proposal at their regular meeting on Thursday. It’s unclear whether they’ll vote on the matter.
“I do want to have the discussion,” Henning said. “I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I put it on the agenda because I don’t want anyone to be blindsided by the fact we’re talking about it.”