If Wake County Doesn’t Have Extra Money for Schools, Should It Spend Millions to Turn a Failed Golf Course into a Park? | Wake County | Indy Week

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If Wake County Doesn’t Have Extra Money for Schools, Should It Spend Millions to Turn a Failed Golf Course into a Park?

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A sign informs passersby that the Crooked Creek Golf Club is permanently closed. Inset: the Crooked Creek clubhouse. Photos by Thomas Goldsmith

Wake County leaders are at odds over whether it's a good deal for taxpayers to make a county park out of the failed Crooked Creek Golf Course in Fuquay-Varina.

Proponents of converting the former course in booming south Wake feel so strongly that commissioners have received pro-park emails from as many as a thousand people—more than the number who wrote in at the height of the recent school-funding debate, commissioners say. The Board of Commissioners is set to hash out the matter at an August 14 work session.

Depending on whom you ask, buying the golf course is either an unprecedented chance to create a great facility for the area or as an excessive expenditure that would be better spent elsewhere.

Commissioners Matt Calabria, in whose district the course lies, and Sig Hutchinson, the board chairman and a major backer of open spaces, strongly support the project. A no vote seems probable from Commissioner Jessica Holmes and likely from Commissioner Greg Ford. The pair voted this spring against a county budget that gave Wake County Public Schools less than half the system's request for new money.

"We just told the school system that we have no additional funds available to them," Holmes says. "We're also in an affordable housing crisis. I would have to believe that Wake County citizens would put this park, in a middle-class community's backyard, pretty far down the totem pole."

"The county has recommended north of two million dollars for a southeastern park already," adds Ford. "I have concerns about moving forward with another park, where we've already invested a lot of money."

"It's not a Fuquay-Varina issue; it's a south Wake issue," Calabria counters. "It's the center of an area where we need a future elementary school. Then you'll have a school located next to a beautiful park. You have all sorts of opportunities."

The nonprofit Conservation Trust will pay roughly $4 million for the land, which Wake will then buy back within a few years under a deal that's yet to be struck. A Wake County staff email to commissioners puts the park's development costs at as much as $15.3 million, start-up costs at as much as $171,000, and yearly upkeep at between $271,000 and $383,000.

The 164-acre property already has twenty-one acres under option by Wake schools. Calabria says there's a possibility of using some of the property as wetlands mitigation, which would produce revenue. And a nonprofit that works with adults with disabilities is interested in putting a facility on the land as well. Calabria and Hutchinson are also pushing the value of additional open spaces and connections with the county's growing greenway system.

But the biggest backers of the project are residents of the neighboring middle-class subdivision who don't want to see the former golf course filled with more residential development.

The park proposal for the bedroom town of twenty-six thousand is being pushed and tugged by complicated crosscurrents. At least three commissioners—Erv Portman, John Burns, and James West—are reserving judgment until they hear a staff presentation at the upcoming meeting. County budget constraints on education and affordable housing arise repeatedly in their responses, as does the fact that this park isn't included in the county's parks master plan, which is designed to bring rationality and curb favoritism as facilities are envisioned and built.

"I would probably look at whether or not it fits into our master park plan," West says. "And basically, is this a suitable place for a park in terms of land use, and not just a situation for some people who have a problem, to fix it for them?"

"At this moment, I am all for ensuring that we continue to add parks and open space commensurate with our growth," Portman says. "That's a concept of concurrency—you grow up better, not just bigger. The con is it's a failed golf course and there's a strong vested interest in the people that have been harmed by the golf course to have the public fix the problem. That might not necessarily be a good idea."

The people who have a problem are those who have bought land and houses around the golf course since it opened in 1995, according to court records. Many of them did so in the belief that the rolling course would be used for golf in perpetuity. Instead, the golf course closed for good in July 2015 and sold the majority of its assets. A group of residents in nearby houses sued to keep the course from closing and to prevent the owners from allowing more houses to be built on the former links, but they lost in trial court last year.

The state Court of Appeals ruled July 18 that the owners are under no obligation to keep the golf course in operation or to forestall residential development, even though the presence of the links was heavily featured in advertising.

Plaintiffs in the case have not decided whether to appeal.

"We think it is unethical to promise dozens of families that they are going to live on a golf course and then pull the rug out from under them," says Matt Quinn, the homeowners' attorney. "I don't agree that the golf course went under. At the very end, mismanagement set in."

"I believe the county has more pressing priorities," Holmes says, "such as supporting our schools and ensuring that our teachers, our policemen, and our firemen are able to afford to live in the communities where they work."

Burns says he could support the Crooked Creek project if it can be made to fit in with the schools budget and the parks budget. "There's a ton of community support," Burns says. "There are discussions about some pretty creative ways to make it happen."

Hutchinson and Calabria both want to make sure that the purchase doesn't look like a bailout for the upper-middle-class homeowners around the course.

"When I first saw the property, I was suspect," Hutchinson says. "The more I looked at it and the more I heard from the community, the more I saw real potential in this. It's so much more than just the neighbors around the golf course. "

Calabria says the park would be accessible to vulnerable populations in south Wake, not just to the adjacent suburbanites.

"The commission has a strong mission of helping the underprivileged," he says. "There's little doubt that people who live in the neighborhood would benefit. If that were the primary effect, I don't think any commissioner would be interested."

For skeptics, at least one question remains: Why do some initiatives seem to jump the line over perennial problems? 

With two other Wake parks in planning stages within five or six miles of Fuquay-Varina, Holmes asks, how does Crooked Creek rise to the top of the list?

"My thought is, where are they going to get the funds for this?" she says.

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