Among the biggest flashpoints of this year’s Wake County elections was the Board of Commissioners’ decision last November to explore acquiring the former Crooked Creek Golf Course in Fuquay-Varina and turning it into a park. 

Critics argued that commissioners couldn’t justify spending millions of dollars on the project after they declined to give the school system all of the funding it said it needed. In May, two commissioners—John Burns and Erv Portman—lost their Democratic primaries following races in which the Crooked Creek vote featured heavily. 

A month later, the Board of Commissioners voted 4–3 to buy the land for $4 million anyway, with Burns and Portman in favor.

In December, the new board was sworn in. Burns and Portman were gone, replaced by Susan Evans and Vickie Adamson. And Greg Ford, a former school principal who was among the park’s biggest critics, now thinks he has the votes to correct what he views as the previous board’s mistake. 

On January 7, he’ll ask his fellow commissioners to put the Crooked Creek property back up for sale, possibly to the highest bidder—who could be a developer.  

In the last week, the residents who lobbied the county to buy Crooked Creek have deluged commissioners’ inboxes with hundreds of emails of support for the park, some slamming Ford’s move as “reprehensible.” To soften the blow, Ford wants the county to prioritize Southeast Wake County Park, a three-hundred-acre project adjacent to Garner and Fuquay-Varina according to an email he sent county manager David Ellis last week.

Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a Crooked Creek park supporter, says he first learned about Ford’s intentions on Thursday night, when Ford left him a voicemail. 

“I’ve met with staff on this,” Ford told him. “Board majority is with this.”

“It’s political payback,” Hutchinson says. “He lost the votes [in November 2017 and in June], and now he feels he has the votes to turn it around, and so he’s going to take this unprecedented move to basically turn one hundred and forty acres of park in the middle of a neighborhood into a residential development.”

The county’s purchasing agreement mandates that the land only be developed for public use. Before that, though, the property was governed by homeowners association covenants that restricted its development to low-density residential housing. 

Here’s where things get complicated: County guidelines require Wake to first offer the land to the school system and then assess its feasibility for affordable housing before putting it on the market. If it’s sold on the market, however, it’s possible that the sale would void the county’s agreement and re-establish the HOA’s rules—which, in turn, would ensure a housing development.  (The county attorney handling the matter could not be reached for comment.)

“This is Wake County parkland,” Hutchinson says. “Why in the world would anybody in their right mind sell parkland to build houses?”

Crooked Creek’s neighbors have fought that possibility for years. In 2015, they sued the defunct golf course when its owners tried to build housing on the site. Then they took their case to Wake County, showing up to public hearings in the hundreds to make their case for a park. (They dropped their lawsuit when the county bought the land.) 

In their eyes, Ford is acting out of spite—and they’re going to pay the price.    

Ford says that’s not the case at all. 

“Now that we, as a new board, have all been sworn in, I think the timing is perfect to look at where our priorities are, and that includes a review of current, existing, and future projects,” he says. “Crooked Creek is one of those. It seemed to be a natural conclusion that the first thing we needed to do as a new board was to have conversations about whether or not this particular project idea was one that we still were behind.”

While Evans and Adamson were the beneficiaries of a well-financed campaign by Dean Debnam, whose mailer accused Crooked Creek-supporting commissioners Hutchinson, Burns, Portman, and Matt Calabria of wanting to “spend $23 million to bail out a failing golf course,” Adamson says she hasn’t taken a position on the issue. 

“I will be looking fully into this matter, and I assure you that I will not be making any uninformed decisions,” she told the INDY in an email. 

Evans could not be reached for comment by press time. But she told The News & Observer that she, too, had more research to do. Ford needs one of their votes to sell the property. 

Calabria, a chief proponent of the park’s acquisition, argues that Crooked Creek is a “symbolic issue” in the education debate, saying there’s never been a real conflict between preserving open space and the county’s other priorities. He also points out that county voters approved a $120 million bond for parks and greenways in November. 

“We shouldn’t be auctioning off one of our greatest amenities,” Calabria says. “Residents across the county have made it clear that we value our parks and greenways, and getting rid of the property is a step backward that would harm southern Wake County and Wake County has a whole.”