A win for Sedgefield neighbors: Land won’t be sold for townhouses

A piece of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools land that had been slated for sale to a townhouse developer will instead remain undeveloped, after Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to ask CMS not to sell the land – and agreed to buy it themselves if the school system doesn’t agree.

In a complicated action, the county commission voted to ask CMS not to sell 3.7 acres at Sedgefield Middle School, with commissioner Jim Puckett voting against. If CMS insists on selling the land, the county commission will exercise its right of first refusal and buy the land itself, rather than letting the school system sell the Sedgefield land to Pulte Homes.

But if that happens, the county would reduce a $33 million planned payment to CMS for capital projects by the amount of the purchase price, to offset the cost. That means the bottom line for CMS and the county would both effectively see a net zero impact from the purchase.

Neighbors in the Sedgefield and Dilworth neighborhoods opposed the sale, which they say would jeopardize adjacent Sedgefield Neighborhood Park and eliminate a valuable piece of open space in a rapidly densifying part of town. A petition against the sale started by the Sedgefield Neighborhood Association gathered almost 1,500 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

Neighbors pleaded for the county to preserve green space, as development brings hundreds of new apartments and denser infill developments to the area just east of South Boulevard.

“We feel like this is an important piece of property,” said Will Johns, president of the Sedgefield Neighborhood Association. Neighbors unfurled banners that read “Park the CMS land sale!” from the upper balconies of the county commission’s meeting chamber at the Government Center uptown, and dozens of area residents held signs in the audience opposing the sale.

“The CMS land under consideration is some of the only remaining public green space” in the area, said Johns. Some neighbors feel hemmed in by the increasing urbanization of the area. “This land is in imminent jeopardy of being bulldozed.”

The 3.7-acre parcel is located on McDonald Avenue, just south of Ideal Way at the northeast corner of Sedgefield Middle School’s campus. Although the tract isn’t technically part of the neighboring park, an access path to the park runs through the land, and a county parks sign at the entrance led many in the neighborhood to believe the site belongs to the park.

CMS decided to sell the land last year, one of two dozen parcels the school system declared “surplus.” Such sales can help CMS offset its anticipated $2 billion worth of capital improvements needed over the next decade, officials have said.

Pulte Homes has offered $3.85 million to buy the site for a new townhouse development, which CMS said would total less than 30 units. Under state law, CMS must offer Mecklenburg County the right of first refusal on any property it sells. That means that even though county commissioners couldn’t vote to block the sale outright, they had the right to buy the land themselves before any other purchasers.

Some commission members who initially supported the sale said they were convinced by neighbors that the land should be kept public.

“I have come completely full circle on this,” said vice-chair Dumont Clarke, who made a motion for the county to buy the land.

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he had hoped the neighbors would be able to convince CMS not to sell, rather than placing the county in the position of buyer. He said a visit to the park had shown him the site’s significance.

“It really is a quiet respite from the big city around the neighborhood,” said Ridenhour. “The fiscal conservative and free market guy in me says you sell property and let the market decide what the highest and best use is...In this instance, it’s a little different.”

Ridenhour also said that when the county asked CMS to sell excess land, officials hadn’t anticipated that the Sedgefield tract would be one such site.

“I don’t think anyone was really thinking about plus or minus three acres adjacent to a Mecklenburg park,” he said.

Ridenhour said he wanted to tie the purchase to $33 million in funds the county is providing CMS for capital projects, reducing the amount and offsetting it by the purchase price.

The idea resonated with some on the commission.

“It seems to me that could work for everyone,” said commission chairman Trevor Fuller. He said CMS should get more public input in its surplus land sales from surrounding communities. “There’s to be a conversation.”

Some commissioners said they’re not willing to spend county funds to buy public land from another government body.

“I’m not going to write a check for this,” said commissioner Bill James. “It’s their land, as much as I hate to admit it...The state legislature has set this goofy system up.”

County commissioner Pat Cotham said the issue is a case of “be careful what you wish for,” after the county asked CMS to sell land and offset its capital costs. CMS officials have said selling the land is important in a time of tight budgets.

“The school system isn’t in a position to be able to hang on to assets like this,” school board member Eric Davis said last month. “We are incredibly capital-constrained...I wish we had the resources to hang on to a lot of the properties. We just don’t.”

County commissioner Jim Puckett said the county commission risks setting a bad precedent by buying the land from CMS at the neighbors’ behest.

“We have stated that it is important CMS be proactive in helping with their extensive capital plans,” said Puckett. “They have to loosen up some of their assets...When they start to dispose of land they don’t need like this 3 1/2 acres, it is going to impact someone’s neighborhood.”

“Every piece of property CMS owns, by and large, is in and around a neighborhood,” said Puckett. “The cost of this three acres just can’t offset what we potentially lose if we have to take the money to buy this from somewhere else.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo