Neighbors to CMS: Don’t sell Sedgefield Middle School land

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan to sell a piece of Sedgefield Middle School land marked “surplus” has sparked strong opposition from neighbors, who say the school system is being short-sighted.

Mecklenburg County commissioners have the option to buy the land, since CMS must give the county the right of first refusal on the property. But the county can’t block the sale if they don’t pony up at least $3.85 million. That’s the price Pulte Homes is offering for the site, to build a townhouse development.

The commission is set to vote Sept. 6, and it doesn’t appear likely they’ll buy the land, which is next to Sedgefield Neighborhood Park.

“We’re building a concrete jungle everywhere,” said Sedgefield Neighborhood Association President Will Johns. The 3.7 acre parcel on McDonald Avenue isn’t technically part of the park. But it feels like it is, with towering oaks, a footpath to the main athletic fields and a quiet creek and wetlands.

“We need to preserve what’s left,” he said. “Why destroy it when you can save it?”

The conflict in Sedgefield is the latest over density and growth in an established Charlotte neighborhood: In addition to the dozens of townhouses Pulte Homes could build on the McDonald Avenue site, Sedgefield already is seeing a massive influx of development and new residences from the Sedgefield Shopping Center redevelopment and the explosive growth along the nearby South Boulevard corridor.

The land is on the market because the school district decided last year to identify land it owned that’s not needed for schools or other educational facilities and sell it to raise money. CMS staff identified 153 acres, much of it carved out from existing school sites.

In addition to the Sedgefield site, the land for sale includes tracts from across the county, such as 3.6 acres at Barrington Elementary in west Charlotte, 11.6 acres at Reedy Creek Elementary in the northeast and 20.7 acres at Mint Hill Middle.

CMS plans to update its list of surplus real estate for sale each year. That means more neighborhoods are likely to see new development on what’s now school property.

CMS board member Eric Davis, who represents the area including Sedgefield, says he sympathizes with the neighbors who want to see the open space preserved rather than developed into townhouses.

“I totally get how the neighbors feel,” said Davis. “You’ve got a stream on one side and trees on the other. It’s just a nice little oasis.”

But he said CMS, which relies on the state and county to fund its budget, needs the money. The school system is seeking an $805 million bond package for capital projects such as new schools, renovations and deferred maintenance. Over the next decade, the district estimates it will need $2 billion to cover its capital needs.

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

Pulte declined to provide more details about its plans for the site, since it does not yet own the land.

Potential for a bigger park?

Although Mecklenburg County can’t block CMS from selling property it owns outright, the county could offer to buy the land itself. Mecklenburg would then be in a position to combine it with Sedgefield Neighborhood Park, increasing the park’s area from five to almost nine acres.

That’s an attractive option for those in the neighborhood, who point to a recent study that ranked Charlotte 95th out of the nation’s 100 largest cities for park space. In uptown, the county’s planned sale of 5.5-acre Marshall Park to a private developer, who would build a smaller park there and develop the rest into a commercial project, has also drawn criticism.

County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, pointed out that the county commission has told the school system to find other ways to make up its capital budget – and land sales are one way to raise money.

“I personally would prefer it remain an open space, but it’s not my call,” said Fuller. The deal to sell the land includes an easement to preserve an existing access path onto the park from McDonald Avenue. “It’s a little bit of a mixed message to challenge them on this particular transaction when we are trying to see what they can do to pay for these capital costs.”

He said it’s unlikely the county commissioners will vote to step in and buy the Sedgefield land.

“As it stands, it is not within our plans to spend the $3 million,” said Fuller. “We don’t have $3 million for this purpose, and don’t have the need for the property itself. I suspect we will refuse.”

But neighbors aren’t giving up. They’ve launched a petition, which has gathered over 600 signatures, and plan to lobby county commissioners. They believe the school might use the land in the future – Sedgefield’s campus totals 24 acres, and it might need to expand, especially after student reassignment – and the money from the sale wouldn’t be significant in the overall context of CMS’s annual budget of nearly $1.5 billion.

“It would be a shame to lose that land for a rounding error,” said Johns.

Who decides land is ‘surplus?’

CMS staff members classified the Sedgefield land and other parcels for sale as “surplus” because they determined they’re distant from school buildings or have challenging topography on which to build, said Peggy Hey, executive director of facility planning and management.

“We understand the challenges that come with development. We will work with the purchaser and encourage them to be a good neighbor to the community and the school and to work cooperatively with the city and county on any development plans,” Hey wrote, in an email forwarded by a CMS spokesperson.

The Sedgefield site isn’t the first CMS has sold. Earlier this year, the school board voted to sell Meritage Homes 32 acres surrounding Ballantyne Elementary School for $6 million. Meritage plans to develop a new subdivision.

CMS didn’t respond to questions about whether more tracts they put on the market have attracted interest from other buyers. But public records show at least several have. The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have expressed interest in buying land around Barringer Academy, Croft Elementary School, Mallard Creek Elementary School and the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.

A company affiliated with private equity firm Greene Courte Partners, which operates airport parking lots, has expressed interest in buying 38.5 acres on Stafford Drive, next to CMS Auxiliary Services and across from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. And a firm affiliated with Sam’s Mart convenience stores is interested in a 1.8-acre tract next to Lebanon Road Elementary Schools in Mint Hill.

Johns said that in Sedgefield, neighbors weren’t given enough notice of the proposed sale.

“They all said ‘What are you talking about?’” Johns said nearby property owners and park users responded last week when he told them about the deal with Pulte.

CMS countered that it has made numerous efforts to publicize the land sales.

“We follow a very public process,” said Davis.

The Observer reported on the planned sales in September, and CMS discussed the proposals at subsequent public meetings and posted required public notices of the intended sale. CMS officials also have communicated with Johns for months to keep him up to date on the sale process, a spokesperson said.

Still, Elaine Powell, chairwoman of the Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Commission, said there should be a better process for gathering public input on such land sales.

“It seems like there should be a lot more conversation about these properties, especially since they’re public properties,” said Powell.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo