Thursday, October 29, 2015 12:54 AM
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson dropped a bombshell at the end of a Saturday afternoon, Oct. 24 outdoor meeting of concerned citizens at the Guilford County Prison Farm: The company behind a large new industrial project that the City of Burlington and Alamance County have been trying to bring to the Prison Farm land had decided against locating on the site and the threat of that company coming was no longer there.
According to one source close to those talks, the interested company was a German-based aeronautics firm that was looking to put a manufacturing operation on a 111-acre section of the Guilford County Prison Farm that’s owned by Guilford County, located in Alamance County, and being eyed by the City of Burlington for development. If the site had won out, it would have meant jobs and new investment, but would also have meant a great deal of traffic, noise and industry for the rural area.
Branson told the 50 or so citizens at the meeting that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners discussed the matter in a closed session at their Thursday, Oct. 22 meeting – three days before the town hall-style meeting at the Prison Farm.
One source said Burlington was still interested in buying the land and that the city’s offer remains on the table. However, so far the Guilford County commissioners have seemed uninterested in selling the property for anywhere near the $4,700-an-acre price that Burlington has offered.
Branson announced at the meeting that Burlington and Alamance County had approached Guilford County and asked the county to be a partner in the attempt to locate the project on the Prison Farm. He said the company in question also had an interest in other sights on the Eastern Seaboard and had decided to pass on the Alamance County site.
“That particular company is no longer interested,” Branson said. “Things can change, but at this point in time we can breathe a little easier.”
The threat of the company coming to the area was the catalyst for the meeting of the 50 or so people – mostly area residents – who were unified in wanting to see the land remain rural.
When Branson was asked after the meeting if Burlington was still interested in buying and developing the land, he said he felt like they were “laying low for a few weeks.”
Some indications are that Burlington may be interested in developing the site, along with Alamance County, using Burlington water and sewer – though Burlington officials have been very tight-lipped about the city’s plans for the property. Regardless, the news of the mystery company pulling out of talks has certainly removed the urgency of the discussion and, for now at least, the anxiety of those who want to see the Prison Farm land preserved was nicely dissipated by Branson’s surprise announcement.
All of the Guilford County commissioners were invited to the meeting, which was held on a near perfect day in front of the abandoned greenhouses where Guilford County jail inmates used to grow plants and sell them to the public. In February, the Board of Commissioners voted to close the Prison Farm and cease the greenhouse and farming operations – as well as put an end to many other county services provided there. However, despite closing the farm, the commissioners have never had a serious discussion about what to do with the property in light of the end of county farming operations. Guilford County has now leased much of the land to farmers; however, as the Oct. 24 meeting demonstrated, the future of all that property is anybody’s guess and it’s constantly a target for developers who have shown plenty of interest in the past.
Branson, who got applause and cheers for his announcement, only spoke at the end of the meeting, which was interesting because, if he’d spoken first, perhaps everyone could have been more relaxed the whole time.
The meeting was also meant to help establish guidelines for long-term plans for the area, so that every few years residents don’t have to rally to fight off a new threat of industrialization for the 806 acres in Guilford County and Alamance County that Guilford County owns.
Frances Hindman, an area resident who was one of the first speakers, voiced the feelings of many in the crowd.
“This is not where we need an airplane parts factory,” she said.
Hindman said she’d written letters to several area newspapers and had met with the mayor of Burlington on the matter. She said her message was that the area needs to be preserved for hiking, parks and farming and that it would be a big mistake to bring industry to the area.
Harry Clapp, another longtime resident of the Prison Farm area, offered some alternatives for development.
“A state research farm is one possible use,” he said.
He said the land was near NC A&T State University and NC State, the two agricultural schools in North Carolina and, he added, those schools could no doubt put the land to good use.
Guilford County Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor Ray Briggs told the assembled group that people always talk about developing the land but, really, the land is developed.
“It’s already agri-business” Briggs said.
“The world’s population continues to increase, but it is losing farmland at an alarming rate,” Briggs added. “Agriculture is the perfect fit for the area.”
He also said that, if one part of the land is used for industry, the “surrounding land will be in danger” as well.
He pointed out that NC Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler had come to that same spot and said that the land needed to be preserved. In May 2014, the commissioner of agriculture came to the Prison Farm and spoke about the importance of preserving farmland in North Carolina and he said what a travesty it would be if the Prison Farm land were to fall into the hands of developers.
Briggs said the land was worth a lot more than the current offer would suggest.
“The City of Burlington wants to buy it for $4,700 an acre – we may as well give it to them,” he said. “I think the City of Burlington is a little short if they want to buy it.”
One farmer at the meeting said Guilford County should ask $50,000 an acre for the land to keep all buyers away.
Other speakers at the meeting wanted to know why the county commissioners had closed down the Prison Farm in the first place. Bobby Johnson, a retired Cone Mills worker who’s lived in the area for many years, questioned whether Guilford County was really losing money when it operated the property as a farm. He said he didn’t think that was possible.
“How can they lose money when you’ve got free labor, and with all the corn they sold,” he asked.
David Teague, an area resident who spoke along with his wife, said the land belonged to the citizens of Guilford County and they’re are the ones who should benefit from it.
“Make sure the people of Guilford County get the reward,” King said.
He spoke about a recent free grape give-away where citizens were allowed to come out and pick grapes that would have otherwise gone bad. Eddie Bridges – a long-time conservationist and advocate for North Carolina’s wildlife and one of the key organizers of the Oct. 24 meeting – had recently arranged the grape picking and there was a feeling that that event exposed a lot of citizens to the beauty of the Prison Farm area and gave them a new appreciation for it.
King said there were plenty of ways the area could be put to use without being developed.
“There is a need for a regional fire training facility,” he said.
He also said that an “agrarian mental health center” was another possibility for the area.
“They just need an open space to walk,” he said of mental patients who might use such a facility.
Walt Teague, an architect, also said that a farm-based mental health facility was a real need, especially, he said, with all the mental health issues the country is facing right now.
“There is something therapeutic about being outside and doing manual labor,” Teague said.
Teague also had another interesting idea: Make the Prison Farm into a prison farm. He said there’s a benefit and a need for such a facility – even if the commissioners just closed it down.
“It’d be wonderful if it was just the obvious,” Teague said.
Branson, the commissioner who represents the residents in the area on the Guilford County side of the county line, said he was interested in keeping the land rural for now. He cautioned, however, that the decision wasn’t up to him.
“I’m just one guy on the board of nine,” Branson told the group made up largely of his constituents.
At the meeting, several speakers said they had heard a group of area farmers had offered to buy the land but the county wouldn’t sell it to them because they were keeping it for development.
Branson said he wasn’t aware any offer to purchase made by local farmers.
Others at the meeting had heard the land would be used as a place to put hundreds or thousands of “refugees.”
When asked if that were the case, Branson said, “Not to my knowledge. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
He said that, like many there, he was aware of the need for food and that the United States would be in dire straights if it kept losing its farms.
Several speakers pointed out the irony of the county spending taxpayer money to purchase open space while looking to sell off a big wide-open expanse of open space that it already owns.
Branson said, “I hear you when you say we recently put up a $10 million bond for open space.” He said he had been to three ribbon cuttings – two that morning and one the day before – of open space properties of land the county had purchased. He said that private developers had a great deal of property listed for development in eastern Guilford County.
Some residents used the meeting to express other concerns. For instance, one spoke on the constant use of concussion grenades at the Prison Farm’s firing range. He said “75 to 100” had been set off on a single day recently, and the noise went on until nearly 10 p.m.
Branson said it’s “tough to get rid of the noise with the shooting range since it is used by law enforcement officers across the state.”
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece attended the meeting as did some other county staff. At the end of the meeting the staff brought out cookies, cupcakes and other treats for everyone. The refreshments went down especially well with Branson’s good news, which made just about everything go down better that day.