Just after 11:00 p.m. Monday, dozens of residents stormed out of the Wake County Board of Commissioners’ chambers, angry but not really surprised. The night’s fractious, heated meeting—the board’s first since two new members were sworn in last month—had ended the way they’d expected it to, though that didn’t make the betrayal they tasted any less bitter. 

Six hours earlier, more than three hundred people had packed into the board’s chambers and an overflow room inside the Justice Center to urge—no, beg—the county not to sell the defunct 143-acre Crooked Creek Golf Course it had purchased for parkland last summer for $4 million. 

The vote in November 2017 to begin acquiring that property—itself fractious and heated—was a flashpoint in last May’s Democratic primaries, in which incumbents and park supporters John Burns and Erv Portman were defeated 

Spearheading the effort to sell the land was Commissioner Greg Ford, who received an election cycle’s worth of hate mail over the holidays after he announced his intentions last month. For Ford, this was a course correction: The old board had erred in bailing out the golf course and catering to the needs of its affluent neighbors over the county’s other responsibilities, especially public schools. 

For the park’s supporters, this was treachery. Their corner of South Wake was long overdue for a park—everyone agreed on that. They’d fought for a park for years. They’d been promised a park. And now they had a deal for a park, but the county wanted to renege—all because, in their eyes, Ford was being petty and spiteful. 

 “For me, this is about character and integrity,” Ford said at one point, before being cut short by bellowing laughter and boos from the crowd. 

In the end, the board voted 4–3 to sell the land. As expected, Ford was joined by Commissioners Jessica Holmes and James West, who’d opposed buying the property, and newcomer Vickie Adamson, who defeated Burns. Less predictably, fellow newcomer Susan Evans, the former school board member who defeated Portman, joined Sig Hutchinson and Matt Calabria in voting against the move; she said she wanted more time to make a decision.

During the campaign, Evans and Adamson were the beneficiaries of deep-pocketed donors Ann Campbell and Dean Debnam. Along with their spouses and PACs, Campbell and Debnam donated nearly $200,000 to defeat the four Crooked Creek-supporting commissioners, whom they criticized for spending millions on a park while not giving the school system what it needed. 

The dispute over the park boiled over in April, when Ford, Holmes, and West released an open letter hinting that Hutchinson, Calabria, Burns, and Portman may be engaging in pay-to-play after they scheduled a campaign event with park supporters. Those commissioners, in turn, pointed to Debnam and Campbell’s largesse as evidence that the election was being bought.  

That tension still lingered Monday. Several park supporters invoked those campaign donations in criticizing Ford, and Hutchinson accused him and his allies of doing their benefactors’ bidding: “A much-needed park has been reduced to political payback by rich voters,” he said.  

As a sop to the neighborhood, commissioners voted to place the Southeast Wake County Park, already in development nearby, atop the county’s priority list. But that didn’t satisfy Crooked Creek’s supporters. 

Following the vote, most audience members rose angrily from their seats and marched out, some folding handwritten signs with heads hung and others shouting threats of litigation. They pooled in the Justice Center’s corridors, bewildered at what they’d just witnessed. Nearly seventy people had signed up to speak, all but one in favor of the park. Many left not feeling heard. 

“Their minds were made up,” said Linda Sandell, walking toward her car. “It’s a disgrace, and it’s a slap in the face for this community.”

For nearly four hours, park supporters had described the land’s natural beauty and its potential for recreation. They noted that it had the support of local municipalities, the Sierra Club, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. And, they said, the park was a promise. By selling the land, the board was breaking that promise.

The new board, Ford countered, is not beholden to the decisions of its predecessor, and elections matter. Adamson echoed his sentiments: The purchase last year was a poor business decision “for the benefit of one neighborhood,” she said. 

After the Crooked Creek Golf Course closed in 2015, neighbors sued to prevent the property from being developed into residential housing. They dropped the lawsuit last year, when the county agreed to explore purchasing the property under several conditions, including the homeowners association giving up its right to restrict the development of the property.

The homeowners “fulfilled their end of the bargain,” Brian Edlin, an attorney for the Crooked Creek Community Association, told the board Monday. “Now what you want to do is undo that bargain.” 

Per county policy, the Crooked Creek land will first be offered to the school system. If the school system doesn’t want it, it’s unclear what happens next, or what the sale will mean for the neighborhood. A lawsuit seems imminent—indeed, Hutchinson encouraged park supporters to take their fight to court. 

Another unanswered question: What does this contentious debate, so early into the board’s run, portend for its future? 

Nothing good, says Hutchinson.   

“After something like this, how do you begin to work together?” he asks. “It’s for the leadership of this board, whose job is to build a board and build harmony, to find common ground, and for the first full meeting of this board, to pull a stunt like this, it’s unconscionable.”

Clarification: This story originally attributed the pay-to-play accusation, made last April, solely to Ford. 

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by phone at 919-832-8774, by email at ltauss@indyweek.com, or on Twitter @leightauss. 

3 replies on “In Its First Meeting, Wake’s New Board of Commissioners Settled Old Scores”

  1. I have one correction to this article. The SE Wake Park is not currently being developed. Per the county website, it is 300 acres of disjointed parcels of land. While they say it is being made a priority, it will be years before it comes to fruition.

  2. What is often overlooked about the South Wake Park Project is that there would be no elementary school site (https://www.wcpss.net/Page/3925?pid=213) along the heavily populated Hilltop-Needmore corridor without it.

    The Park Project rallied 97% of the homeowners in the Crooked Creek subdivision to simultaneously remove their restrictive covenants (that applied to the former golf course land) for both the park and school site parcels. Without the enthusiasm for the park, it would have been extremely unlikely that residents would have voted the required 95% in favor, to remove the covenants just for the school purchase.

    The attorneys for the County and School systems both said they would not move forward with the purchase of the park or school sites without the removal of the community’s covenants. Otherwise, the school system would have been forced to condemn the land and pay homeowners for a loss of value to their properties.

    So, the park and school purchases were part of the same planning and understanding between the parties (at least those negotiating in good faith) and the County intentionally linked the purchases together. It was also envisioned that the school and park projects would both benefit from sharing recreational facilities, and the costs of road improvements along Hilltop-Needmore, the primary access point to the sites.

    Therefore, it would now be a cold-blooded betrayal of residents of Crooked Creek to sell the park site. Even more significantly, it would also be a betrayal of all citizens who voted in favor of the park bond referendum, who want more parks built. And further, it would be a betrayal of the school system, by negatively impacting their construction budget and removing the enrichment opportunities that a park could offer students.

    Mr. Ford’s motion to sell land designated for a park, for which there is a current demand, defeats common sense. And, the notions of good governance and integrity that he claims to support.

    Equating the Debham’s and their PAC’s support for Ford and Adamson totaling over $100,000 during 2018, to the Commissioners who supported the park and their single meet-and-greet with park supporters where relatively little money was donated is unacceptable, but typical of INDYWEEK reporting.

    The golf course couldn’t be bailed out because it had already closed and the County purchased it from The Conservation Fund.

    The park wouldn’t have just benefited the neighboring community because the majority of park supporters and organizations endorsing it do not live in the neighborhood.

  3. This was a park for ALL of South Wake, not just one neighborhood. I live 9 mi & 20 min from it…and consider it a loss. Stop calling it Crooked Creek golf course -that closed in 2015. They are up for re-election in 2 yrs(not 4). This will cost the County more in the long run.

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