Volume 16, Number 2
By David Leone
Associate Editor, The Wake Forest Weekly
(This article was originally published by The Wake Forest Weekly in its December 14, 2017 issue and is being reprinted here with the permission of Todd and Clellie Allen, the newspaper’s owners. Todd Allen is also the publisher and executive editor for the newspaper.)
Robert and Lynda Thum’s Shearon Farms home overlooks a neighborhood lake.
From their Corktree Court back porch on a late December afternoon, one sees so much wildlife that have made the area their home. Wood ducks congregate; a hawk flies up into a tree; a startled great blue heron takes to the air. Two bald eagles chase each other before settling in the trees on the far side.
It is because of that natural environment that the couple expresses their concerns with a plan by a group of investors (Complex Sports Group LLC) to put a sports complex on the 114 acres on the other side of the lake.
“We can sit out there (on the deck). Our son, an avid hunter, names the ducks that land on the lake. I feel fortunate,” Lynda Thum said.
“We’ve been here since October 2005. When we moved here, they said it would be a nature trail,” Robert Thum added. “Our biggest worry is if they grade it, it’ll stop water from coming to the [lake]. The osprey won’t have somewhere to go.”
There are two parcels of land to the subdivision’s southeast side that the sportsplex would sit on. A 44-acre parcel owned by the town of Wake Forest along Capital Boulevard and to the north of the Neuse River, adjoins the other parcel, a portion of which juts out and into the privately held lake.
The goal is to put four large baseball fields, five lacrosse/soccer fields and an inflatable dome for training, fitness, volleyball and basketball on the property. The Wake Forest Board of Commissioners, after hearing the presentation by the development group the week of Thanksgiving, quickly approved a lease agreement with the LLC, with a down payment of $284,000, before most people were even aware that the site, long thought to be in reserve for walking trails or other open space, was even in play again.
The 25-year renewable lease agreement would allow the LLC to develop the land for tournament play — fields that could be rented out to private entities. When it’s not in use for paying customers, the fields would be provided to the town for its own recreation needs free of charge. The agreement could save the town millions of dollars in unspent rentals by the recreation department’s own calculations.
The Thums aren’t the only ones put off by the plan. Shearon Farms townhomes HOA representative John Behringer spoke out during the presentation about the sportsplex, having just gotten word of it in the weeks leading up to the meeting at town hall.
He, the Thums and others are concerned with potential quality of life encroachments — ballfield lights disrupting wildlife and shining potentially into their homes, and the sound of the fields during play.
There are safety concerns for the amount of traffic that might access the site off Shearon Farms Avenue. Any southbound vehicles would likely connect by cutting through the neighborhood from Burlington Mills Road. Until a direct connection road to Capital Boulevard is added, the main neighborhood entrance drive could get very busy as well.
And then there’s the concern over the body of water itself. Would grading of the land to the southeast foul the lake with silt? Would the loss of trees send the woodland wildlife away? Some of the two parcels of land are covered in wetlands or 100-year floodplain. Might the development affect the water retention in such a way that flooding which has come up to the neighborhood homes’ back decks is worsened?
All those questions have yet to be answered.
“My big problem frankly is it’s just such the wrong place to do this,” Lynda said. “There’s other land where you’re not right beside a river, and the trees didn’t take generations to grow. Because of my love for that land — I go hiking all over it with my grandsons – I just hate to see it go away. It takes so long to come back.”
Land donated in 2001
In December 2001, the town’s parcel was gifted to the town by River Place III, an LLC that had planned to redevelop textiles manufacturer Burlington Industries’ Wake Finishing Plant across Capital Boulevard (nothing much was ever done with the property — it’s in use by a U-Haul franchise now). The land would eventually be used for a greenway, town officials reported at the time.
In 2001, the land gift was made in the name of former North Carolina Supreme Court justice and Wake Forest resident I. Beverly Lake. A Riverplace attorney said at the time the land, worth $3 million, benefitted Riverplace in the form of state and federal tax credits.
In the weeks before that 2001 land transfer was made, The Wake Weekly reported that the town’s open space plan update called for “development of an open space park along the Neuse River, possibly in partnership with Raleigh.” Whether or not that was related to the land dedication was not clear.
Nothing has ever been built on the gift property, however, though Raleigh’s Neuse River walking trail is just on the other side of the river.
Jason Cannon, the town’s economic development director, worked with sports complex partners Bobby Murray, Jonathan Hayward and Steve McKinion and Jason McCoy — all longtime residents of Wake Forest — to develop the plan and establish the lease. He is trying to allay concerns that there is some sort of collusion between the town and the LLC that would interrupt the development approval process.
The lease had to come first, he said, otherwise the group wouldn’t have had assurances necessary to go forward with early project planning.
With any private land lease or sale, a developer would also get a lease agreement, or option to buy, with that entity before coming to the town with a plan, Cannon noted. That the town owns the property will not interfere with the process, he said, including the potentiality that the land might not be suited for development or the roads might not be accessible without expensive improvements.
Those elements will be decided by state water quality officials and state Department of Transportation representatives, Cannon pointed out. They’d also have to meet all the requirements of the town’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).
“This lease doesn’t in any way change the requirements of the UDO,” Cannon said. “The only thing different about this deal than any other is the town owns the land.”
There is a concern, however, that the lease agreement, as well as the town’s need for ballfields, will tip the process in favor of approval.
That need is very real. Ballfields are expensive to build and expensive to rent. The development group’s figure that the town could save $15 million over as many years in place of rentals, was not pie-in-the-sky. The figure came from the town.
“I asked our athletics director to give me feedback on the cost of field rentals today, estimating, conservatively, 10 percent increases every five years,” Cannon said. They multiplied that by the number of weeks or hours for each different season, and the estimated growth in programs during that time.
“Fifteen years ended up at almost $16 million,” Cannon said. “I wanted to show our board that this had a valuable commodity to it. They used our numbers. … One thing I heard repeatedly from our parks and recreation folks, is we cannot meet the demand, we have hundreds of people on waiting lists.”
The ancillary, economic benefit of $10 to $15 million that the LLC representative stated during the initial meeting did not come from the town, Cannon noted.
Mutual use assured
When running the Complex Sports Group’s plans past the recreation staff, the idea arose that the town would need the fields more during the week and less on weekends when there would be more tournament play, Cannon said, which led to the idea of mutual use.
The lease agreement spells out the mutual use, so there’s no way the town will gradually lose access to the fields over time, he said.
An attorney for the town stated during the LLC’s presentation that it’s possible the project could clear the planning process without the need for public hearings. That’s because the property along Capital Boulevard is zoned for highway business — a designation which allows just about anything by right, if it meets the aforementioned health, safety and water quality requirements. With a project of this size, however, which will take months to plan, and will likely trigger a traffic impact analysis, it’s also very likely the work required will also trigger the public input process as well, Cannon said.
The only thing that’s certain at this point is that the original gift requirements have to be kept — the site developers will have to leave room for a future greenway, Cannon said.
Even with all the town’s needs and wants, the project is not a sure thing, Cannon reiterated.
“We understand people are passionate,” he said. “We want to hear those concerns and work through them.”