Wake County

New election mailer attacks four Wake leaders over controversial county park

The former Crooked Creek Golf Club in Fuquay-Varina has become a flashpoint in the May 8 Wake County commissioners primary.
The former Crooked Creek Golf Club in Fuquay-Varina has become a flashpoint in the May 8 Wake County commissioners primary. N&O file

A new election mailer and website is targeting four Wake County Commissioners for their support of a controversial park in Southern Wake County.

With photos of John Burns, Matt Calabria, Sig Hutchinson and Erv Portman, the website, www.crookedcreekwakecounty.com, and mailer say "these county commissioners want to spend $23 million to bail out a failing golf course."

It also encourages people to support the Democratic challengers Vickie Adamson, Lindy Brown, Jeremiah Pierce and Susan Evans along with incumbents Jessica Holmes, Greg Ford and James West.

In a press release, Burns asked his challenger, Adamson, to condemn the campaign mailer and website and tweeted "it also raises serious questions about the independence of her campaign."

"Ms. Adamson knows very well that the county is not bailing out a golf course," Burns said in the news release. "We will purchase almost 200 acres of open land in a fast-growing part of the county and open it to public use. As a Democrat, a progressive and a conservationist, if you give me the opportunity to preserve land for future generations at below market rates, I'm going to do it every time."

She should distance herself from the "naked power grab," Burns said.

The mailer and website was funded by the Wake Citizens for Good Government PAC, which is run by Dean Debnam, a liberal activist and owner of Public Policy Polling.

A screenshot of the website, www.crookedcreekwakecounty.com, attacking four Wake County commissioners.

Adamson said the first time she saw the mailer was when it arrived through the mail at her home, but thought the information was "pretty accurate" based on her research of the Crooked Creek property.

"I don't get involved with PACs and I've completely distanced myself from them," she said. "So, no, I am not going to condemn it. Plus, Mr. Burns did not ask me to condemn it. He demanded I do it. So, no, I have no intention to do that at this point. We are in early voting and I'm running a low-budget campaign and so my place is out where I am now, trying to greet and meet voters."

"Debnam-style dirty politics"

The website also says "your taxpayer dollars spent..." and lists "not recruiting jobs," "not building housing" and "not funding our schools" underneath it.

No money has been allocated for the purchase of the former Crooked Creek Golf Course, said Frank Cope, the county's community services director. It's also not currently included in a proposed $120 million bond for parks, greenways and open space.

In a 4-to-3 vote last fall, commissioners decided to move forward with the project and purchase the land once a series of conditions were met ranging from a potential rezoning of the property and an environmental assessment. Not all of those purchase conditions have been met and a second county commissioner vote is still needed to officially purchase the 143 acres.

The cost for the purchase of the golf course would be nearly $4 million while it's estimated to cost a little more than $23 million, over a series of years, for the purchase, planning and development of the property. The golf course closed in 2015 after the owners said it was no longer profitable. Afterward, it was involved in a lengthy legal case between the owners and residents living there which is now resolved.

To the north of that property is a neighboring 80 acres owned by the Triangle Greenways Council. That property is already protected under conservation easements and would remain protected regardless of who the owner of the property is. A condition of the county's purchase of the golf course was to also acquire the Triangle Greenways Council property and build a greenway on that property.

County staff had been working under the assumption the land would be donated by TGC, but the nonprofit told the county in late March it would actually cost a little more than $100,000 to purchase the property. The commissioners have not discussed that purchase request.

Debnam supported the four incumbents when they first ran for office, but has since shifted support to their challengers. He and his wife have each made the maximum $5,200 donation allowed to Evans, Adamson and Brown and $2,600 each to Pierce. They've also donated the maximum amount to the Women Awake PAC and to the Wake Citizens for Good Government PAC.

"Stating that we 'bailed out a golf course' is a flat out lie," Burns said in the news release. "Ms. Adamson and I agreed at the beginning of this campaign that it should be based on facts and we should both avoid Debnam-style dirty politics."

"Pay-to-play" campaign event?

The planned purchase of the golf course is one of the recurring themes in the May 8 Democratic primary.

Several opponents of the proposed park say money would be better spent on education or affordable housing. Comparisons have been drawn between the total potential cost of purchasing, planning and developing the park at $23 million to the $24 million gap in funding requested by the Wake County Public School System last year.

The school board requested $45.2 million in additional funding last year, but commissioners voted on a budget that only included a $21 million increase over the previous year.

"My supporters deserve to know my position," Adamson said in a Facebook post. "It was one of the main reasons I chose to run, as the money could have, in my opinion, been spent more usefully elsewhere."

Several of the challengers, and their supporters, have said they want to fully fund the school system. This year the school board is requesting a record $58 million in additional funding over the current year.

The three commissioners who voted against moving forward with the Crooked Creek project, Holmes, Ford and West, released a statement in early April condemning a campaign event involving the property.

Supporters of the South Wake County Park hosted a meet-and-greet event for the incumbents who advocated for the park. Holmes, Ford and West asked the others distance themselves from the event saying it had the appearance of a "pay to play" event. Burns, Calabria, Hutchinson and Portman said it was no different than attending other events by supporters.

Anna Johnson; 919-829-4807; @anna_m_johnson

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer