Faced with an estimated cost of $23.4 million through 2022, a stack of legal questions, and an audience eager to convert the former Crooked Creek golf course, the Wake County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to turn the Fuquay-Varina course into a park.
However, the move came with many conditions.
That is, the measure the commissioners voted on contained a stack of provisions that will have to be met—from the dismissal of pending lawsuits, negation of restrictive covenants on the land, and a satisfactory environmental assessment. In addition, the acquisition is not outright, but comes in the form of a lease-purchase agreement with the nonprofit Conservation Fund.
More than 200 people showed up at Monday’s board meeting, some giving impassioned speeches as the park as a spot for community relaxation and others as the home to a facility for children with autism. Speakers in opposition said the money to be spent should go to other county needs including education and help for homeless people. County parks staff recommended against the move. The talk rolled on for more than four hours.
After pointed pleas from educators that the money would be better spent on schools, commissioners Matt Calabria, Sig Hutchinson, Erv Portman and John Burns voted for the conversion, with James West, Jessica Holmes, and Greg Ford in opposition.
The vote followed a long, mostly grave discussion. Except for a contentious school budget discussion, commissioners had not recently faced an issue with such clear opposing outcomes. Either the park would come into being, or the money would go elsewhere. Even so, the decision came with many caveats.
“If we don’t take advantage of opportunities like this, we lose them,” urged Commissioner Matt Calabria, who has led the drive to set the park in motion.
The opportunity to join a park with a greenway, a school and other amenities is too good to lose, Calabria said.
Commissioners James West, in opposing the conversion, cited other needs such as the lack of upward mobility that keeps many Wake County residents down.
“In Wake County if you’re born poor, you stay poor,” West said.
Holmes raised issues of homelessness, mental health treatment, needs of veterans and troubled school children in speaking against the measure.
“There is still on the table an unanswered $9.9 million request to provide students with counselors and social workers,” Holmes said.
Wake County community services director, said county parks and recreation staff, while seeing the benefits of the park, recommended not moving forward with it because of legal questions and other priorities within the parks system.
Eric Staehle, with Wake County facilities design and construction, presented a long list of repairs, renovation and construction items that would be necessary to bring the physical plant and grounds up to a usable state.
The property’s anticipated land cost of $4.476 million, according to a survey by two county contractors, would be just the beginning. Additional expenses through 2022 would include $7.09 in roadways and utilities, $7 million in park development, $2.4 million in facility repairs, $1.8 million for staffing and operating, $201,637 for startup equipment, and $305,400 for the impact of development, according to information supplied to commissioners.
Staehle explained the cost associated with converting a golf course, with purposely limited use, into a park that residents have envisioned as a gathering place for the entire community. Residents from Fuquay-Varina and Cary objected to the staff estimates as excessive and unrealistic.
“I think it’s pretty clear here what the people want,” park booster Ron Nawojczyk said during a public comment period, gesturing to the 200 park supporters who thronged to the meeting. “People are here pleading with you to give us a safe place to exercise and relax.”
Paulette Jones Leaven, with the North Carolina Association of Educators, rose to note that commissioners deciding on the park had decided in June against fully funding the county school board’s request for new funding in the current school year.
“Meanwhile, here on the agenda I see a $15 million upfit to convert a golf course to a county park,” Leaven said as she opposed the park development.
Several speakers made a case for the proposed South Wake Park as home to a planned residential farm community for children with autism, under the auspices of the nonprofit agency 3 Irish Jewels. The complex would include a farm, farmers market, coffee shop, and other features geared toward making it self-sustaining.
Somelegal issues have been resolved, but others have emerged during Wake County lawyers’ perusal of all the pertaining documents, Assistant County Attorney Allison Cooper said. Indeed, one ofthe
course, the maintenance building, remains under private lease until May.
There’s also a high-risk dam on the property that is out of compliance because there hasn’t been an emergency plan update during the past two years. Making sure the emergency plan is up to date is one of the conditions commissioners attached to the sale.
Residential covenants cover much of the property, setting forth governance restrictions that would hold sway even if the course is sold, Cooper said.
“There are three general use restrictions that apply to the property,namely: 1) a prohibition on animals and livestock, 2) a prohibition on boat storage, and 3) a prohibition for on-street parking,” the county legal staff said in an analysis presented to commissioners. “However, the Crooked Creek covenants could be amended in the future and the County has no control over future amendments
Cooper said that the legal staff would have to work until the end of February to resolve the legal questions involved with the park.