A picturesque rural suburb, Summerfield eyes development to attract newcomers while maintaining its wide-open spaces.
Dodging picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, Nathan Daly kicks a soccer ball with his young sons – Nate, Knox and Bear — who run across the grassy expanse at Summerfield Farms, resting at an umbrella-shaded picnic table for swigs of grape soda.
“Mom’s at home with the twins, so I figured I’d get out of work early and come over here and hang out,” says Daly, 35, the father of five children. Five years ago, he moved from southern Virginia to Summerfield, just northwest of Greensboro. “It’s just a great place to raise a family. Sports for the kids, a good little hometown feel.”
The late afternoon is warm but the atmosphere is chill as country music pipes across the field. A beverage stand called The Well Truck flows with beer, cider and wine. It is a big draw at Summerfield Farms, a working farm and events venue owned by High Point real estate developer David Couch, CEO of Blue Ridge Cos.
Couch, 59, began buying land around here in 1998 and has amassed more than 1,000 acres divided into six tracts stretching from Summerfield Road to Interstate 73. Roughly 680 acres makes up Summerfield Farms, where he raises cattle and grows organic produce for sale at The Market, a refurbished tractor shed. A white, gussied-up barn hosts weddings, conferences and other social occasions. Stylish cottages and cabins provide lodging. “I never intended to develop it,” he says of the rolling pastures and stands of trees. “But I began to listen to the land and kind of envisioned what it would look like to provide some housing options.”
He envisions affordable homes for both downsizing retirees and upstart millennials, retail, restaurants, a health care center, and hiking trails that connect with the area’s greenways — in essence, a town within a town called Summerfield Farms Village. “We’re planning a world-class, master-planned community,” he says. “We need flexibility in housing, and it’s time for Summerfield to address that.”
LONG ON HISTORY, BIG ON CHARM
It’s not just the younger folks: It’s the baby boomers trying to scale down. “If you think about what young families and the millennials are looking for, and you compare it to what the aging adult community is looking for, it’s all smaller,” Couch says. “Right now, your option is to move out of Summerfield.”
Eager as Couch is to see smaller, lower-priced housing choices, the town is known for its distaste of high-density development. People like their yards spacious. Summerfield doesn’t have its own water and sewer services, relying instead on private or communal wells and septic tanks.
The town has a fire department but no police force; the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office provides law-enforcement protection. Summerfield Mayor BJ Barnes served as the county sheriff for 24 years. While the Summerfield community has roots reaching back to the 1700s, it wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1996.
The village started out as Bruce’s Crossroads, named for landowner Charles Bruce. The town seal includes a sketch of a bugle boy. During the Revolution, the bugler for American Gen. Harry Lee was killed in a skirmish and is buried in Bruce’s Cemetery, right across from Summerfield Elementary School. When a preacher named John Summerfield led a revival, locals took a liking to him and named their community in his honor.
Given all that history, the official town is only 25 years old. “I really like that we’re a young town trying to find its way, dealing with growth issues and our identity,” says Scott Whitaker, the town manager for nine years.
Summerfield has the multilane U.S. 220 as its commercial core, which includes a Food Lion, pharmacies and a handful of restaurants. But it lacks a true downtown.
“We’re largely a residential community with a higher per capita income but very limited services,” Whitaker says. The per capita income in Summerfield was $50,319 in 2019 compared to the statewide average of $32,021.
The traditional center of town, at the intersection of N.C. 150 and Old Summerfield Road, is mostly free of commercial enterprise. Summerfield Town Hall, with its quaint, oval sign overhanging the sidewalk, occupies a handsome brick building dating back to 1872. But last November, the city council approved the construction of a $3.5 million town hall at a nearby location.
Summerfield’s corporate limits encompass nearly 27 square miles. Cruising through town, the scenery is accented with barns, hay bales and split-rail fences. Goats and horses graze in pastures within sight of cul-de-sacs. “We’re still rural,” Barnes says. “We have a lot of rural land out here within the town limits, and people like that.” Now in his second year as mayor, his objective is to preserve that aesthetic. “I would like for us to keep our rural charm as much as we can, but I’d also like to see some measured growth.”
A DEVELOPER’S VISION
Measured growth is what Couch hopes to deliver. But to make his master-planned community a reality, he needs a water and sewer system.
His plan is to bring together Summerfield, Greensboro and Guilford County in a partnership to create a special tax district covering his project. Greensboro would extend water and sewer lines to Summerfield, and residents of the district would pay double the rates of those charged in the city. The higher rates and tax revenue would be collected by Guilford County to pay Greensboro for the infrastructure. As for how many homes he plans to build, Couch says, “The market will determine that. We don’t have a density yet.”
Couch has not submitted a formal proposal to the town, but Barnes sees benefits in a special tax district. “Summerfield gets water and sewer and doesn’t have to pay for it,” he says. Nobody outside the district would be forced to tap into the water system. Providing reliable water sources for fire protection is a long-standing issue in North Carolina’s rural communities. Four years ago, the towns of Summerfield, Oak Ridge and Stokesdale considered a combined water system, but the high cost and other concerns dried up that idea.
Summerfield has historically resisted a water system for fear it would attract denser developments. Still, the state legislature in 2019 allocated $1.1 million for each of the three towns to develop water infrastructure. Town leaders are looking to use that money to build 35,000-gallon tanks as a source of water to fight fires.
Couch faces opposition from some residents who fear his plans would overload the roads and threaten the area’s rural atmosphere. But he says he’s relying on “world-class planners” who can skillfully develop the land to protect open space and enhance rural vistas. “You can create useful open space, not just the backs of lots and wetlands and briar patches that people really can’t access and enjoy.”
PRIDE IN PARKS
Parks and trails are a point of pride in Summerfield. Summerfield Athletic Park opened in 2010, featuring a multipurpose field and three baseball fields hosting an array of tournaments. Summerfield Community Park boasts a paved exercise trail weaving through the deep woods and a gorgeous fishing lake, butterfly garden, wildflower field and amphitheater. Ask Whitaker, the town manager, what he loves about Summerfield, and he’ll tell you he’s “really partial to our efforts related to parks and recreation amenities.”
An example is the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, which is under development through Summerfield, roughly following the route of the abandoned Atlantic and Yadkin Railroad. The existing A&Y Greenway meanders from downtown Greensboro north toward Summerfield. This trail would link with the proposed Piedmont Greenway, designed to run from Greensboro to Winston-Salem.
Protecting the scenery and room-to-roam feel of Summerfield is the primary goal of the town’s development ordinance. It has been in the works for years, with town council approval expected this summer. Its main objectives are to lessen street congestion, provide fire protection, prevent overcrowding and “avoid undue concentration of population.” Couch says his community would help the town achieve its development aims. “Towns don’t stay static,” he says. “They either grow or they die. People want us to grow in a smart manner.”
Back at Summerfield Farms, dozens of teachers from Summerfield Charter Academy chatter, quenching their thirst with offerings from The Well Truck. They had come for an end-of-the-school-year retreat inside the main barn, and now they’re toasting the start of summer. Beneath a large tree, a young couple with a baby sit on a blanket.
The “green acres” of Summerfield are what teacher Sara Pescuma finds so appealing. The mother of a 10-year-old girl, she wanted to build her own house, and she says Summerfield had plenty of elbow room. She was also drawn to the high-performing schools in the area, some of the best in Guilford County. “It’s growing, though it’s not in the middle of Greensboro,” she says. “But it’s still close enough to go whenever you want. People are really friendly, and that’s what keeps me here.”
The afternoon is warm, the music is wafting and the drinks are flowing. Things are laid back and wide open. Summerfield hopes to keep it that way. ■