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3/19/2020 5:03:00 PM
New life for Bandera Farms
An abandoned, overgrown tract of 113 acres on Bunch Road may become a public trails mecca in northwest Guilford County
Photo courtesy of Diane Thompson/Allen Tate Realtors   |  A 113-acre tract on Bunch Road is characterized by grassy, wooded terrain  and dormant kudzu growing over several acres of the tract. Piedmont Land Conservancy had entered into a contract to purchase the property and hopes to use it for walking, hiking, and possibly horse trails and mountain bikers.
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Photo courtesy of Diane Thompson/Allen Tate Realtors | A 113-acre tract on Bunch Road is characterized by grassy, wooded terrain and dormant kudzu growing over several acres of the tract. Piedmont Land Conservancy had entered into a contract to purchase the property and hopes to use it for walking, hiking, and possibly horse trails and mountain bikers.

SUMMERFIELD - A stream trickles across the 113 acres where Bonnie Henson Gallo once rode horses. More than 40 years later, it's grown into a mucky thicket of briars that's going to become even more impassable when several acres of kudzu spring back to life this summer.

The terrain is steep and is prone to flooding by Reedy Fork Creek. In other words, it's unsuitable for building a subdivision - but ideal for what Piedmont Land Conservancy (PLC) envisions.

The nonprofit organization has entered into a contract to buy the land, part of what's known as Bandera Farms. It is preparing to ask the towns of Summerfield and Oak Ridge, as well as Guilford County, to help pay for it.

If the sale takes place, the property, which is located in Summerfield, would become a recreation area with trails for hikers and runners and possibly mountain bikers and horseback riders, according to Palmer McIntyre, PLC's conservation planner.

"These kinds of opportunities are rare, and incredibly important," McIntyre said in an email earlier this week, explaining that acquisition of the tract would provide low-impact recreational opportunities for the public while preserving and protecting the watershed from development.

For Gallo and other children of Dr. Joe Henson, a deceased Greensboro doctor who bought the property in the early 1970s, redeveloping the property for recreation would bring its use full circle.

"We used to have so much fun," she said.

In an interview last week, Gallo recalled riding horses, motorcycles and a dune buggy, as well as cross-country skiing, on the land. In her 20s, she raised horses and rounded up her father's cows. Over four decades, her three sisters and brother also lived there, as did Dr. Henson and his wife, Carolyn, who hosted pig pickings and family reunions on the property.

"It's perfect, it couldn't be better," Gallo said of the proposed sale, adding that northwest Guilford "needs a recreational area."

The asking price is $785,000, according to the listing by real estate agent Diane Thompson, of Allen Tate Realtors in Greensboro. Kevin Redding, PLC's executive director, wouldn't disclose how much his organization agreed to pay. He said he expects the transaction to close by the end of this year, as long as PLC can raise enough money from local governments and state and federal grants.

Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker said he plans to ask the town council to consider discussing the Bandera Farms proposal during an upcoming meeting.

"It's a regional opportunity to partner with others for open space and trails," he said in an email earlier this week, adding that "financial involvement is a council decision."

If a majority of the council supports the project, Summerfield could appropriate money to help buy the property from its current budget or wait until next fiscal year starting July 1, Whitaker said.

In Oak Ridge, the town council hasn't formally discussed the proposal, but it probably will talk about it "as the proposal comes into better focus," Town Manager Bill Bruce said in an email earlier this week. There has been discussion among town staff members about the project and how it might be funded, he noted.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners hasn't gotten "a formal ask" from PLC seeking financial support, said Commissioner Justin Conrad, who represents District 3 which includes Oak Ridge and Summerfield. The board could support the Bandera Farms project with proceeds from an earlier bond sale supporting preservation of open space, he said.

"It would make some sense to use the proceeds for a public-private project," Conrad confirmed in an interview earlier this week.

The original tract purchased by Dr. Henson consisted of approximately 200 acres fronting Bunch Road. He named it Bandera Farms after visiting Bandera, Texas, which calls itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World."

"That name stuck with him," Gallo said.

Construction of Interstate 73 split Bandera Farms, requiring Dr. Henson to sell some of his property for the North Carolina Department of Transportation's right of way. It left 49 acres south of the highway, which opened in 2018, and the 113 acres on the north side.

Over the years, members of the Henson family lived on the smaller tract in two houses sitting amidst fenced pastures, barns and other buildings for horses and cows. Dr. Henson and his wife were living there when he died in 2013, according to Gallo.

The next year, developer Kevan Combs proposed building a subdivision with 36 homes on the property. He abandoned the project after Summerfield's Planning Board recommended the town council reject his request to rezone the property from AG (agricultural) to OSRD (open space residential district). Nearby homeowners objected to the new zoning because it would have allowed for construction of houses on lots smaller than typically allowed by town regulations; in exchange for smaller lots, the classification requires that half or more of the property remain as open space.

Later, Bandera Farms Inc., an entity representing Dr. Henson's heirs, sold the tract, which remains undeveloped.

Until PLC emerged as a buyer, efforts to sell the 113 acres had been hampered by the property's steep terrain and limited access from Bunch Road, according to Thompson.

Reedy Fork Creek runs along the northern side of the tract, putting 30 of the 113 acres in the floodplain and making the land unsuitable for development. Sandy stretches strewn with fallen trees rise to the marshy thicket of briars. Deer trails cut across the property, which climbs through hardwood trees before running into the concrete of I-73.

PLC was initially interested in taking an easement on a portion of the property for the proposed Piedmont Greenway, according to McIntyre. The 19-mile trail would run from Greensboro to Winston-Salem through Summerfield, Oak Ridge and Kernersville. The greenway would cross the Bandera Farms property, providing recreational benefits beyond the 113 acres, Thompson said.

"The ability to connect the greenway all the way through is a huge win for the community," she said in an interview last week.

As PLC's staff looked at the Bandera Farms property last year, they decided to pursue the entire tract, not just the easement for the Piedmont Greenway, McIntyre said.

Developing the property "is a huge opportunity to create a tremendous recreational resource in this community," she said. "We are envisioning trails on all of the property."

Trails would probably open a year or two after PLC bought the property, McIntyre said. Deciding whether to allow horseback riding will depend upon the potential impact of horses on water quality, since the property is located in the drinking watershed for the city of Greensboro, she said.

PLC envisions the eventual construction of a parking lot for users of the property, McIntyre noted. Picnic tables, restrooms and other amenities are also possible, although plans are preliminary and not PLC's short-term focus.

"Our priority right now is to secure the property," she said. "So for the time being we are primarily focused on fundraising."

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