A proposed park outside Fuquay-Varina that proved controversial — and costly — for some Wake County leaders in last month's election will be back on the board's docket next week.
Four Wake County commissioners support the idea of turning the former Crooked Creek Golf Course into a potential park in southern Wake County. That spurred attack mailers during May's Democratic commissioner primary. Two pro-park incumbents lost their bids for re-election, amid charges of "pay-to-play" politics.
"The ink isn't even dry on Wake's FY19 budget and some Wake commissioners are moving quickly to buy the old golf course for a park — while WCPSS struggles to meet critical needs," Commissioner Greg Ford wrote on Facebook, referring to the Wake County Public School System. "I believe this is wrong and will continue to oppose it at every step."
The election mailer and website targeted commissioners Erv Portman, John Burns, Matt Calabria and Sig Hutchinson for moving forward with the park purchase. The mailer had photos of the four and said "these county commissioners want to spend $23 million to bail out a failing golf course."
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Portman and Burns lost their re-election bids to former school board member Susan Evans and political newcomer Vickie Adamson.
Before the mailer, the three commissioners who voted against moving forward with the park — Ford, Jessica Holmes and James West — issued a joint statement condemning what they called a "pay-to-play" campaign event concerning the proposed park in April. The statement referenced a social media post encouraging supporters to attend a meet-and-greet for the pro-park commissioners.
"The appearance of such (a campaign) event borders on unethical conduct and undermines the impartiality and fiduciary responsibility of the board, and we have notified the county manager and the county attorney of our concerns," the statement from the three commissioners said. "The board of commissioners should make every attempt to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest and should strive to serve all residents with integrity and fairness."
That sentiment was denied by the pro-park commissioners.
"I don’t think there is any ethical question there unless I were to pledge to vote a certain way for a certain amount of money," Burns said in April. "That would be illegal. That would be unethical. And I would never do that. And being accused of that as an attorney whom ethics is the most important thing for my professional reputation — I want to make it clear that there is nothing to that accusation. I value my ethical reputation very highly, and never had it questioned."
The meeting to discuss formally purchasing the former golf course begins at 2 p.m. Monday in room 2800 at the Wake County Justice Center in downtown Raleigh. Commissioners do not take action or vote during work sessions. The goal of the meeting is so the item can be placed on the agenda for the June 18 meeting.
Calabria, Hutchinson, Burns and Portman voted in favor of moving forward with the proposed park last fall, with the understanding that a second vote would be needed to officially buy it after a list of conditions — ranging from a potential rezoning to an environmental assessment — were completed.
"At it's core this is about preserving open space in an area where space is rapidly disappearing," Calabria said. "I think there are a lot of folks who have tried to make this into a political opportunity for themselves. At the end of the day, many of the distractors are just that."
The fact that the property was once owned by a golf course is irrelevant because it's now open land partly on a protected watershed that will connect to a county greenway, Calabria added.
"We are not going to wake up 20 years from now and regret ever preserving too much open space," he said. "In a county like Wake, with growth being what it is, we really need to make sure we stay ahead of the curve and this is one of the ways we are doing this."
The golf course closed in 2015 after owners said it was no longer profitable. It was the subject of a lengthy legal case between the owners and nearby residents.
The 143 acres, now owned by The Conservation Fund, is expected to cost about $4 million. The official cost to plan and develop the park will ultimately depend on what will be located there. A previous staff estimate put the total cost at about $23 million.
That $23 million number became a sticking point for opponents of the park who said the money could instead be spent on local schools or affordable housing. Last year, commissioners voted to increase funding to Wake County public schools by $21 million but fell short of a $45.2 million request. This year, Wake County leaders increased funding to public schools by $45 million but again fell short of the school board's request.
Commissioners will hear Monday about the staff's recommendation on how to pay for the park, including possibly putting it on a $120 million parks and open space bond expected to be on the ballot this fall. County staff had originally said the park was not included on the bond nor on a list of potential projects during the commissioners' budget retreat in March.