Guilford County May Sell Some Prison Farm Land To Burlington
The City of Burlington is in talks to buy 111 acres of land from Guilford County for use by a giant aircraft parts production facility in Alamance County. The company is said to be on the verge of a location decision that could drastically change the way of life in and around this site in western Alamance County.
According to several sources familiar with the negotiations meant to bring the Europe-based aircraft parts company to the site, the company’s decision of where to locate its new facility is now down to Alamance County and two other finalists – and officials with the City of Burlington and Alamance County are currently moving heaven and earth in an attempt to close on the project that would mean a wealth of new investment in Alamance County and a flood of new jobs for the area.
Burlington is working in collaboration with Alamance County to get the company, and despite the current intense nature of the behind-the-scenes talks, officials in several local governments have been attempting to keep the deal under wraps.
Negotiations over a price for the 111 acres – which is owned by Guilford County but is in Alamance County – are still underway, but a deal on the purchase of the property is thought to be almost certain since Burlington is intent on buying the land and Guilford County has no planned use for it. Also, Guilford County is interested in helping Burlington and Alamance County move forward on the project – one that’s expected to have a very positive economic ripple effect that will boost Guilford County’s economy as well as Alamance County’s.
Sources familiar with the talks say the site is a finalist for the company due to this region’s emphasis on and commitment to the aircraft industry, the infrastructure for that industry that’s being created in this area, the nearby Piedmont Triad International Airport – as well as the site’s proximity to major highways. There are also the attractive incentives packages that are being cobbled together by Alamance County, Burlington and perhaps the state.
One source said it was his understanding that NC Gov. Pat McCrory was also in on talks regarding incentives for the company at the state level and that the governor had met with some of the players while in the area recently.
The property in question is the Alamance County section of the Guilford County Prison Farm. The Prison Farm ceased holding inmates three years ago and it closed its doors to farming by county inmates earlier this year after the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to shut it down. Some commissioners argued that the Prison Farm was costing the county more to operate than it was worth.
About two years ago, the land in Alamance County was to be included in the now defunct “Project Haystack,” which was an attempt to bring a giant data center park to the 800-plus acres of Prison Farm land owned by Guilford County in eastern Guilford County and in western Alamance County. Many residents of the area who enjoy the rural lifestyle have fought attempts in the past to develop the area, and those same opponents to urbanization and development will no doubt take serious issue with this new grand-scale project in the works.
When Guilford County was first approached by Burlington officials – apparently communicating through city and county staff in closed-door negotiations – Guilford County was offered opportunity to be a partner in the deal by contributing the property to the project in return for future financial benefits for Guilford County.
Sources close to the negotiations say the collective, composed of Burlington and Alamance County and perhaps others small towns in the area such as Elon and Gibsonville, first offered Guilford County the chance to be a partner. However, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners are more interested in selling the land, taking the money and running rather than participating as a partner in the project.
One Guilford County official told the Rhino Times this week, “We’re not going to be in the pack.”
One source in Guilford County government said that, earlier this year, the company informed Alamance County and Burlington officials the land owned by Guilford County in western Alamance County was in contention for the site, but last month, Burlington and Alamance County got word that they are now a finalist with a good chance of getting the company.
“It’s down to them and two other sites,” he said.
Another source with direct knowledge of the land deal talks said Burlington appears very eager to get the property and hopefully win the deal that would change the face of western Alamance County.
“Apparently, they are going to move pretty fast on this,” the source said of Burlington’s desire to acquire the 111 acres from Guilford County.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners held a closed session on Thursday, Sept. 17, and – though there was no mention in open meeting of the land deal or the project – the long closed session was held under the statute that allows the board to “discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations, or to discuss matters relating to military installation closure or realignment.”
Another part of the statute that was cited for the closed session allows for the governing body to “establish, or to instruct the public body’s staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.”
Guilford County held that Sept. 17 closed session after all the other business at their meeting was finished and after the meeting room in the Old Guilford County Court House had cleared out. Normally, during any meeting when there is a closed session after the public business of the board is complete, – the large meeting room is empty save for the Rhino Times, some county security officers and a few county staff who may be needed to answer questions in the closed session.
However, at the Sept. 17 meeting, one man who had sat alone near the back corner all meeting long remained during the closed session.
When the commissioners went behind closed doors and the man continued to hang around, the Rhino Times approached the mystery guest and proceeded with an introduction. After several inquires, the man politely danced around giving his name or telling his business at the meeting.
When the Rhino Times asked why he was at a county commissioners meeting on an increasingly late Thursday night, the man said he was “just interested in Guilford County politics.”
When the Rhino Times joked that that seemed unlikely especially since his interest now involved sitting in an empty room for a long period of time, the man did not change his story. When told that theRhino Times did not remember ever seeing him in a meeting before, the man acknowledged that this was his first time at a Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting.
That mystery man, who never identified himself or his business there, was David Huffman, the city attorney for Burlington – or, at least, he was a man whose appearance exactly matches the photo of Burlington City Attorney David Huffman that’s posted on that city’s website.
Before the Rhino Times approached him, Huffman was also seen speaking with Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece, who remained in the commissioners’ large second-floor meeting room while the closed session took place.
When the commissioners came out of closed session, they did not take any action related to the project nor did they mention it.
The other local governments involved in the deal have been holding economic development closed sessions as well.
On Monday, August 17, the Alamance County commissioners held a closed session and when the board came out, Chairman Dan Ingle offered this: “For what was done in the back in closed session, the board met and reached a tentative consensus on incentives to be offered to a company and instruct the county manager to communicate that incentive to the company.”
The Alamance County board then continued with its regular public business.
The following day, the Burlington Town Council went into closed session to discuss “economic development.”
This week, Guilford County administrators along with legal staff and property staff are in negotiations with Burlington staff in an attempt to work out a price on the land.
The next Guilford County commissioners meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 1, and that would be the earliest date Guilford County could sell the property without calling a special commissioners meeting to do so. Given the rapid pace of developments, it is possible that the property sale may be voted on in open session at that Oct. 1 meeting.
Burlington wants to pay $4,700 an acre for the land, while Guilford County would like to see a price closer to $8,000 or even $9,000 an acre. When the land was discussed as part of Project Haystack two years ago, some consultants thought purchasing property in that area would require spending in the range of $6,000 to $10,000 an acre. As part of those talks, McNiece is looking at recent sales of comparable land in the area to help discern an appropriate price.
Alamance County Tax Director Jeremy Akins told the Rhino Times this week that the tax value his department currently has for 111.5 acres owned by Guilford County is $493,188. That averages out to $4,423 an acre. Alamance County revalues its property every eight years and that valuation was from the 2009 revaluation of all property in that county. Akins said land with similar aspects, but closer to cities and towns, often had tax values approaching $7,500 an acre.
Guilford tax officials have stated openly in the past that, when Guilford County values property it owns, which is non-taxable, the department doesn’t put a great deal of time and effort into that evaluation because no one pays taxes on it. Akins said his tax appraisers do the best they can to reach correct property values even for government-owned property on which no taxes are collected, but he said the reality, though, is that when the valuation comes in a little high or a little low on property exempt from taxes, it is not a major concern.
Several sources said that if the area does win the project, it would be a game changer and mean a very large investment in western Alamance County. That would include some of the largest metal presses in existence.
The land is made up largely of farm fields, pastures and woods and is near Elon, Gibsonville and Burlington. Travis Creek flows through the property that includes some ponds and hills.
When Project Haystack was proposed, city water from Burlington was one need discussed for the infrastructure of that project, but Burlington officials weren’t keen on that idea. In that case, Burlington would have had to extend water lines past the county borders and a good distance from Burlington. This project would require a much more limited and less expensive water line extension by the city.
Anne Cassebaum, who lives near the Guilford County/Alamance County border, and who was a leader in the fight against Project Haystack, said this week that the citizens had been concerned recently about rumblings that there could be a renewed effort to develop rural land in western Alamance County. She said concerns among those in the area who don’t want to see development were elevated in August when the Alamance News in Graham reported that Alamance County was one of under a dozen contenders for a large new company site of some sort.
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