SUMMERFIELD — The irony is rich.
Residents incorporated northwest Guilford County’s three towns — Oak Ridge, Stokesdale and Summerfield — from 1989 through 1999 as protection from Greensboro’s annexation and the taxes and eventual crowding that come with that.
But now Summerfield finds its quiet way of life challenged from, of all places, within.
Some Realtors and residents say the town has too many expensive houses that just aren’t selling. Their solution: a new type of zoning called Planned Development that would allow developers to build less expensive, more concentrated housing on large tracts.
Planners say the new zoning would expand income diversity and create controlled growth.
It would also transform Summerfield into something that resembles Greensboro.
Some think that would be for the better. But hundreds of Summerfield’s 11,000 residents think otherwise.
They want things to stay the same.
But change may be inevitable.
This is a story rooted in America’s tradition of property rights and what happens when city growth clashes with country living.
In these rolling hills 12 miles from downtown Greensboro, you’ll meet people whose families have lived in Guilford County since the Revolutionary War.
You’ll meet avid horse owners who have farms with white fences.
And you’ll meet thousands of suburban commuters who live in large, expensive homes on more than an acre of land.
It’s a quiet way of life here and many residents don’t want that disturbed by the sounds of construction.
For a time, it’s an area that seemed just beyond the reach of development. But a new interstate, a wider U.S. highway and other roads are making Summerfield and neighboring Oak Ridge more accessible for people who might want to move there — and developers willing to pave the way.
For residents, that reality has started to sink in.
“I could live in Irving Park but I chose to live somewhere that didn’t have those amenities that was quieter and didn’t have the traffic,” said Elizabeth McClellan, 45, whose family has lived in Summerfield for 12 years. “People in Summerfield moved here ... because they don’t want that to change.”
Todd Rotruck, who moved to 15 acres in Summerfield in 2016, says he can’t support the Planned Development proposal.
“Why don’t you just let the city of Greensboro annex you? Because that’s the road you’re going down,” said Rotruck, a real estate agent and contractor.
Some critics of concentrated development have one worry in particular: water. Specifically, a lack of it.
Summerfield’s residents use water from wells and they’re currently required to maintain 1.3 acres of land for each home so the town’s overall ground supply is protected.
Rotruck and other residents think that the higher density associated with planned developments will suck the water out of Summerfield.
“The problem with these high-density developments,” Rotruck said, is “once it’s done and you’re taking too much out of the water table, you can’t fix it.”
Churchill Brown has lived here for 17 years. The SunTrust real estate banker says he has no vested interest in any development. Still, as a homeowner he understands the need — the town is filled with mostly expensive homes.
Summerfield has scores of smaller, older houses in subdivisions built before the town incorporated, but new construction has kept the median home price high — $336,000 in 2014, according to officials.
“Ultimately what happens over time, if people want to make a move, they lose money,” Brown said. “I’ve seen it play out on my street.”
Ordinance opponent Karen Knight said as a Long Island, N.Y., native, she has seen what development can do to rural areas.
“I have hindsight because I’ve lived this,” she said. “The reason I left New York is that they pack ’em in like sardines.”
The idea of allowing concentrated housing in what is largely a rural area brought residents by the hundreds to public meetings earlier this year — residents who want their world to remain untouched.
Summerfield’s large lots are dictated by necessity. The town doesn’t have a water or sewer system so homeowners rely on wells and septic systems.
The Planned Development zoning would allow developers to build communities on a minimum of 75 acres with small and large homes, retail, sidewalks, parks and any other use that conforms to goals in the detailed comprehensive plan the town adopted in 2010.
A key goal of the plan is to allow “for a variety of single-family housing types to meet the needs of empty-nesters, senior citizens and young families.”
Research from Town Manager Scott Whitaker and Town Planner Carrie Spencer shows that 25 percent of the people in Summerfield are between age 45 and 55 compared with less than 15 percent in all of Guilford County. The $336,000 median price of homes in Summerfield is more than twice the median price of $155,550 for all of Guilford County.
Whitaker and Spencer have presented their version of the ordinance to residents and the Summerfield Town Council, which has delayed any vote until later this year. They’re revising the plan after hearing comments and suggestions at public meetings in January and February. They’ll present the draft revisions to the Zoning Board on March 27.
Under the proposal, each Planned Development will be examined by town planners, the public, the Zoning Board and the Town Council before being approved.
“We didn’t have to invite this controversy,” Whitaker said. “But if we don’t care what Summerfield is going to look like 10 and 20 years from now, who’s going to?”
One thing that fueled this controversy: Summerfield is about to be in the sweet spot of two major road projects that will open in July.
The state Department of Transportation is building 9.4 miles of Interstate 73 from the Joseph M. Bryan Boulevard/Airport Parkway interchange in Greensboro across N.C. 68 to its end south of U.S. 220 near the Haw River.
I-73 will connect with another U.S. 220 project, which is currently under construction and will extend to N.C. 68 in Rockingham County. The interstate will connect drivers from Rockingham County and other northern areas to Greensboro.
Veteran Greensboro real estate executive Betty Smith of Smith Marketing Allen Tate Realtors said those new highways will determine the future of northwest Guilford County. They’ll also invariably ramp up demand for smaller, more affordable homes.
“The people who want to live in big houses don’t want to live near busy highways,” she said.
Commercial projects are already popping up. Local developer David Couch, for example, is grading land for a large shopping center at the new interchange of I-73 and N.C. 150.
Planned developments, Smith said, are ways for developers and communities to design “a vision to try to fit the land.”
Plus, she added, there’s simply an oversupply of big lots.
“We have a large number of lots already on the ground and there’s not a lot of buyers,” she said.
Statistics show hundreds of large lots and houses are going unsold in northwestern Guilford County.
In Summerfield, Stokesdale and Oak Ridge, up to 1,900 developed and undeveloped lots were available in January, according to research provided by Smith.
That research shows the average new home price in the Summerfield/Oak Ridge area was $528,973 and $392,336 in the Stokesdale area.
According to her research, buyers will demand 300 new homes in the coming 12 months.
To that end, planners, developers and some residents say Summerfield needs affordable housing. It would attract more middle-class people. Ultimately, they may move into more expensive houses.
That housing could also be for people who want to downsize. They say older residents are already moving away from Summerfield because they can no longer maintain large houses.
Dwayne Crawford has lived in Summerfield most of his life. He doesn’t object to any kind of planned development — as long as lots are no smaller than the required 1.3 acres.
Crawford is most concerned that adding higher-density homes, regardless of price, can strain water resources.
“God’s rain and God’s earth hasn’t changed,” he said.
Couch, the developer behind the shopping center at the new interchange of I-73 and N.C. 150, wants to build a planned development on 800 acres he owns at Summerfield Farms on Pleasant Ridge Road.
If self-serving means he has an investment to protect, then Couch admits that. But he also said he is trying to offer a variety of housing that can be affordable to more than the well-to-do residents of Summerfield.
“I think it’s a lot of b.s.,” Crawford said.
In any case, as Couch drove his Chevy Suburban around the hillsides of his land, he said to build a conventional subdivision here would be a waste of beautiful views. He showed a map of the property with areas he hopes to leave undeveloped.
Summerfield does not limit the amount of water homeowners can use from their wells. However, Couch says a few restrictions — low-flow fixtures, limited yard-watering days — could protect the water supply and allow developers to pursue projects with smaller lot sizes and higher density.
“Water is an issue in Summerfield,” Couch said, “because they want to limit who gets over the wall.”
McClellan, a former town council member who has had her share of clashes with Couch, is not impressed with his argument about fair housing.
“That is just developer talk saying he is bringing fair housing,” McClellan said. “David Couch does not care about fair housing. The fair housing argument is ludicrous. We have a variety of housing here.”
If the town were to see more development, she thinks it couldn’t help but be transformed.
“Summerfield would be the biggest loser,” McClellan said, “because it would lose its heart.”
Staff Writer Jessie Pounds contributed to this report.
Contact Richard M. Barron at (336) 373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.