Is CMS in the land development business?

A map from the County Commission meeting showing the land CMS is selling.
A map from the County Commission meeting showing the land CMS is selling.

Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a somewhat unusual deal this week that will allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to sell a 32-acre site surrounding an elementary school to a home builder for a new subdivision.

Some commissioners said they were unsettled by the deal. The county funds CMS’ capital budget and paid the $4.1 million acquisition cost, but the school system will get the proceeds of the sale. The land is under contract to Meritage Homes for $6 million, commissioners said at their meeting Tuesday night.

“CMS is getting into the development business,” said commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican. “That’s just not what they need to be doing...It’s just a bad precedent and probably shouldn’t happen again.”

He called the school’s purchase and development of the land “speculative at best.”

Vilma Leake, a Democrat, seemed unhappy with the proposition.

“That’s double-dipping,” she said.

The school system couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

CMS bought about 39 acres of undeveloped land near Providence Road West and Johnston Road in 2005. The school system carved out seven acres in the center of the site for a new school, which became Ballantyne Elementary School. CMS installed water and sewer and built roads throughout the rest of the site, making the land ready for development as single-family homes. That’s the sort of thing a developer would usually do.

“Is this an indication that CMS is trying to enter housing development?” asked commissioner Bill James, a Republican. “They’re in the school, education business. They’re not in the business of trying to do any kind of housing.”

The commissioners voted not to buy the site – they had a right of first refusal – clearing the way for CMS to sell to Meritage Homes. But they said the sale raises questions about whether CMS is acting as a land speculator or developer, and want to take a closer look at allowing the school system to buy more land than it needs for specific schools.

There are benefits to the county. The land will go back on the property tax rolls once it is developed. A creek running through the site could become part of a county greenway, something the county has already discussed with the developer. And CMS will be required to use the $6 million for capital projects, which could offset money the county would otherwise have to give the school system.

“I have no problem with it as long as it’s being spent for the benefit of educating our children in this community, I just would like it to be transparent,” said commissioner Dumont Clarke, a Democrat.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo