HIGH POINT— Herb Goins and Mark Gatehouse stood on a trail in the Rich Fork Nature Preserve, studying a proposed map for the property.
Shadows and sunlight danced on the ground around them while a creek streamed by a hundred feet below. Just past the water, clearly visible through the trees, stood a house, one of dozens bordering the 120-acre preserve in northwest High Point. It’s easy to spot now, but will be even more obvious after the trees shed their leaves this winter, Goins said.
“I had concerns, and I still do,” said Goins, whose house borders another part of the preserve. “For property owners, it’s mostly about the buffers. But they’ve made some adjustments.”
The original trail ran much closer to the property.
“Being that close made it more likely that people would say, ‘Oh, I know that street,’ and then just exit through someone’s yard,” said Gatehouse of the Greensboro Fat Tire Society, a mountain biking club. “Having a good trail design is largely about making sure that people like the trail they’re on and want to stay on it.”
Conversations about Rich Fork were much less civil a year ago, when community members were mired in a contentious debate over the fate of the property that centered mostly on whether mountain biking should be permitted.
Preservationists said biking could destroy the terrain, causing erosion and harming wildlife.
But bikers, eager to have recreational options in the High Point area, argued that trails could be built in an environmentally sound way.
The issue dominated county meetings for months, frequently devolving into verbal sparring between members of the two groups.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners eventually settled the debate last summer, voting 5-4 to commission a plan for the land that contained trails for both hiking and biking. That, along with November elections that saw every incumbent commissioner re-elected to office, represented a turning point for most members of the Rich Fork Preserve Committee, comprised of residents and preservationists who helped the county acquire the property as part of a now defunct open space program.
“It was pretty much decided at that point. It was a done deal,” Goins said. “So we decided, ‘Let’s make the best of the situation as it exists.’ ”
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The committee started by turning its focus to preserving the historic Hedgecock farmstead, a conglomeration of 13 structures on the edge of the property near Parris Avenue. The group joined with the High Point Preservation Society and solicited the help of Benjamin Briggs, the director of Preservation Greensboro.
And then, county officials contacted the group to get their thoughts on an impending plan for Rich Fork.
“We thought maybe they would just move ahead without any other planning, but they reached out to everyone,” said Marie Poteat, a member of both the Rich Fork committee and the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “They reached out with a hand, and I was willing to take it because I felt like if they were going to go that route, we ought to see if we could put together something that could please most everybody and still be workable for that piece of land.”
Officials had always planned to involve the different user groups, said Rob McNiece, the county’s director of parks and facilities. But that couldn’t happen until county commissioners decided how the land would be used.
“It was really one of the big items that needed to be addressed first,” McNiece said. “After that, we spent time reviewing all the comments, talking to everyone and trying to understand the desires and concerns that each group had to try to come up with a solution that would address as many of them as we could.”
That process, completed in conjunction with a Raleigh-based consulting and design firm, took months.
McNiece and other parks employees walked the property multiple times with different residents and homeowners, noting problem areas and potential concerns. Existing trails deemed unsuitable for various reasons — susceptibility to erosion, skirting too close to private property — were marked with red ribbons and will be closed down and replaced with new pathways.
Four crudely built wooden bridges will be demolished in favor of professionally engineered structures, allowing trails to cross streams without harming the watershed.
In total, 3.5 miles of existing trails will be abandoned.
The county, relying on volunteers, will blaze 1.3 miles of new trails, for a total of 4.3 miles of pathways. Hikers will have access to all of it, including 2.2 miles allotted for mountain biking.
The plan takes into consideration the concerns of both bikers and preservationists, Goins said, and for the most part, people are happy with it.
“We’ve expressed our concerns to parks and rec and the bikers have, too, and they’ve incorporated a lot of what was said by both groups into it,” he said. “Is it a perfect plan? Probably not, but you’re probably never going to have a perfect plan. But they’re allowing for people to make comments.”
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The proposal, approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission in June, debuted on Guilford County’s website last month with contact information for residents who had comments or wanted more information. Parks employees also held a public forum Thursday at the High Point Public Library, where several dozen residents came to view the maps and discuss the trails.
Among them were Julie Sanders and Marie Kalil, neighbors who live on Farnsworth Street on the southern edge of the preserve. Sanders’ house sits on a hill about 100 feet from the southern loop of the proposed biking trail, easily visible from the path. Both women object to the plan and would prefer a line-of-sight buffer to provide protection, something the county has granted to property owners who live near other preserves.
“Usually when a preserve goes in where a housing development already exists, the homeowners get a say because we were here first,” Sanders said. “They’re totally inconsistent with how they operate the preserves in the county.”
The distance between houses and trails — commonly referred to as a setback or buffer — has been a consistent concern for residents in the area. Houses are clearly visible through the trees along certain pathways, which property owners have said is a security risk and a violation of privacy.
Some of the proposed walkways have been adjusted after homeowners explained their concerns, but that decision is always made within the overall goal of creating a lasting trail system, McNiece said.
“We’re always trying to stay cognizant of the adjoining property owners, but also the challenges of the property,” he said. “We’ve tweaked many of the trails a little bit. We always do what we can ... to satisfy the different user groups. But the property has some serious topography, so you’re kind of limited in where you can put trails and how you can move them around so you don’t deal with erosion or other long-term sustainability issues.”
Sanders’ house sits near a particularly tricky area, McNiece explained. The original proposed pathway lies between a creek and two steep hills, with limited options for rerouting.
Parks officials decided last week to eliminate a hairpin curve that bent closest to her property, a less dramatic concession than Sanders wanted.
“My suggestion has been to get rid of this whole bottom loop, but they take the mountain bikers’ concerns more seriously than ours,” she said. “What can we do? It’s just a disappointment. But I know for a fact these guys would not want this in their backyards.”
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The trail plan, along with a preservation plan for the farmstead, will go before the county commissioners in August. If they approve the proposal, work could begin that month, with the goal of opening the property to the public by summer 2018.
Chances are good that the commissioners will approve it, particularly given the cooperation among the once disparate groups, according to Commissioner Alan Branson.
“I’m glad to see it all working, because I think it’s best for the community as a whole versus one particular interest group or another,” Branson said. “I want it to serve as many people as it can.”
On this, everyone seems to agree.
“This is exactly the way that government is supposed to work. They listen, they react and then they make some changes,” Poteat said. “We’re in a very good, workable situation on Rich Fork now, and that’s the big story.”