Four hours into a heated Town Council meeting, Ashley Scales stood up and walked to the microphone. She was the 90th person to speak that February evening, and the 18th in favor of an amendment to the town’s zoning code that would allow apartments in Summerfield, a largely white suburban community of single-family homes on sprawling lots just a few miles outside Greensboro city limits.
Scales, who is Black, told the council she had previously wanted to move to Summerfield, with its pastoral rolling hills and vistas. She had grown up in northwest Greensboro, less than two miles from Summerfield’s southern border, and returned to the area after college to work as an assistant manager of an upscale market and coordinator for an event venue.
But the town’s very vocal opposition to zoning changes that would allow apartments have made the 35-year-old feel like she isn’t welcome.
“I don’t want neighbors who are going to sit here and tell me that they don’t want me here because of the color of my skin,” said Scales. Scales told The Assembly she didn’t know if she would speak that night, but felt like she had the strength of her ancestors supporting her. Though she works for the developer proposing the zoning change, she said she spoke on her own accord.
Her testimony to the Town Council at the First Baptist Church was loudly interrupted with outbursts of “oh, please” and “geez.” One attendee repeatedly yelled “time’s up” 30 seconds before her allotted three minutes were over.
While Greensboro and Summerfield have grown into one another, the places are economically and demographically distinct: Greensboro, the state’s third-most-populated city, is 43 percent Black and more than 8 percent Hispanic; Summerfield is 86 percent white, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Summerfield is also one of the wealthiest communities in the state, a place where half of its families earn more than $127,000 a year, and one in four earns above $200,000. In Greensboro, the typical family makes about $50,000.
The February meeting was focused on a request from developer David Couch to amend the town’s code to allow him to build a village center, single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and apartments on part of a 943-acre plot—roughly 5 percent of the town’s land. This was the developer’s fourth attempt.
Adding more housing, including apartments, was something the town’s attorney stated was needed to align with federal fair housing standards in a community where the average home is valued at $416,000.
The Town Council’s 4-1 vote rejecting a new zoning district wasn’t the first time he’d been declined; he’d been discussing the project for the past six years. But this time signaled a need to find a new way forward—with or without the town. Couch hired a lobbyist, who peered far beyond the Town Council and looked to the state Senate.
In North Carolina, legislators have the power to remove land from municipal control through a process called de-annexation—which is becoming more of a possibility in Summerfield. De-annexation would remove the land in question and make it part of Guilford County, which permits seven single-family homes per acre for every one currently allowed in Summerfield.
In a March statement, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger, who has met with the town and the developer’s lobbyist, stressed the need for more housing in the region, while acknowledging he did not know if the developer’s specific plans should be approved. “[T]he Triad is attracting billions of dollars in new economic development,” Berger, who represents the area, said, “and as our area continues to grow, additional housing is urgently needed so the nurses, teachers, first responders, and construction workers our area relies on can live in the communities they serve.”
With a statewide housing shortage projected to hit 900,000 units by 2030, the General Assembly is also considering bipartisan legislation to exempt certain housing developments from local government control, allowing some workforce housing to bypass local rules that restrict housing, like density, design, and lot width regulations. (In these bills, “workforce housing” is defined as developments where at least twenty percent of the lots will be sold to people who qualify for lending available for those earning up to 100 percent of the area median income.)
Summerfield has become ground zero in this territorial dispute. The property in question lies a short drive from the Boom Supersonic factory, which projects hiring more than 2,400 workers over the next decade, and not far from several other economic development projects, including the Toyota battery plant. It’s a desirable community with nice houses, well-ranked schools, and plenty of land. But many longtime residents say Couch’s plan jeopardizes the “rural character” and “peace and quiet.”
While the town has been divided over the development, the possibility of losing control of the decision to the state has been a unifying factor.
A Town Is Born
Like many parts of the Piedmont, tobacco once grew easily and in abundance in the soils of Summerfield.
From the mid-1800s to early 1900s, the community was connected to Greensboro by the Atlantic & Yadkin railroad, which hauled passengers as well as lumber, flour, and feed.
“Our land always grew big, big tobacco,” said Mark Brown, who first became mayor in 2005. From the 1890s to 1940s, Brown’s grandfather had farmed and raised horses in Summerfield.
Brown’s father stepped off the farm and became a union truck driver. Brown himself spent his career with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, rising to lieutenant.
Brown said he was initially in favor of the proposed apartments, but his feelings changed over time.
“I came out for this apartment thing at the beginning, but after it got a little bit further down the line, it wasn’t what I thought I had seen,” Brown said. “It’s just going way too far, especially when we got duplexes, triplexes, quadruplexes, things like that, and there are other options.”
Back when it took a full day’s wagon-ride to travel the 12 miles to downtown Greensboro and back, the unincorporated area known as Summerfield had its own functional economy: a general store, hardware store, post office, high school, and a bank.
Slowly, the town became a bedroom community. Paul Lee Neal purchased the Summerfield Feed Mill in 1959 and started making his own dog food; milling hay, corn, and wheat; and keeping the tobacco and dairy farmers of the region stocked. His children now run the store, and while it does more business than ever, most of that is now selling landscaping supplies.
The big change was in the early ‘90s, said Paul’s son Steve. “That’s when it really transitioned; older people started dying, farms began to be sold. People working public jobs instead of being farmers.”
As the area tripled in size in the 1990s—rising to 6,000 residents—the town eyed Greensboro’s slowly expanding northern border with unease. Race played at least a part. Summerfield remained 93 percent white in 2000, while nearby Greensboro was 38 percent Black.
Greensboro officials said Summerfield was never on its annexation plan, but Summerfield’s residents wanted to take it fully off the table. Annexation meant access to city services like police and fire, streetlights and trash pickup, in return for paying municipal taxes and following the city’s code, which bars things like firing guns and owning roosters. In 1996, residents voted 439-50 to become a self-governing municipality.
What followed was a mini annexation war. Summerfield received about 1,300 petitions from property owners asking to be included into the new municipality.
Greensboro responded by rapidly annexing about 10 square miles near Summerfield and requiring unincorporated homes that wanted water and sewer to agree to annexation; the city saw losing control of land around some of its water sources and not being able to expand as a threat.
In the end, the two municipalities agreed on a boundary line that kept Summerfield north of the large lakes that supply Greensboro’s water.
Like Scales, Steve Neal lives just south of that boundary line and commutes to Summerfield for work. As a business owner, Neal said he wouldn’t take a side on the development.
“There’s some major considerations: traffic, more kids in school—more arguments against it than there is for it,” he said. “But Summerfield is going to grow because it’s a sought-after place to live.”
Out of Bounds
Now Summerfield finds itself on the other end of an annexation battle.
On April 11, the Town Council approved hiring a land-use attorney to work against any potential de-annexation and in a closed session discussed a communications plan.
Responding to questions from The Assembly about whether Sen. Berger has met with the town’s lobbyists, his press office said in an email that he has had informal conversations with stakeholders.
There’s usually a handful of de-annexation bills proposed in the General Assembly, said Jim Joyce, a professor of government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Around half of them pass, Joyce said.
Often, properties proposed for de-annexation include small airports looking to evade city taxes, parcels at the edge of city limits, or properties where the owner wants out of city rule.
De-annexation, said Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper, is often “a way to avoid taxes. People who live at the edge of a community may feel they have less access to city services, and push to be de-annexed.” It’s also appealing to developers who feel hamstrung by city regulations; two years ago, the possibility of losing about 1,400 acres roiled Brunswick County’s Sunset Beach.
Many residents of Summerfield see the possibility of the state moving in as pitting the interests of a single powerful and connected developer against voters.
In this case, the developer isn’t exactly an outsider: Couch moved to Summerfield in 2003 and today lives most of his time on the farm here that he bought in 1998. (Though some residents allege that he spends more time outside the town, whether at his 418-acre ranch outside Bozeman, Montana, or in Nashville, where his country-singer wife works.)
Couch grew up in Asheboro, about 40 miles away, the child of a dentist and a nurse. Now 60, his real estate holdings include 41 apartment complexes across the South. He already built a 27-home subdivision in Summerfield and owns the Summerfield Farms event space, which renovated an old barn and tractor shed to become a venue and market.
His name is well known across the Triad. Wake Forest University named its ballpark for Couch in 2016, after he made the “lead gift” toward a $14-million training facility. High Point University has Couch Hall, designated after the developer and his wife, Stephanie Quayles, gave a $3 million gift. Their names also top the double-decker carousel at the children’s museum in High Point, and Couch is a top donor to the Greensboro Science Center and the United Way of Greater High Point.
For multiple years he was the largest donor to former state Rep. Trudy Wade, the Republican whose district included High Point and Greensboro. He’s also made big political donations to Senate Republican leader Phil Berger, donating $27,000 over the past five years, and hitting the contribution ceiling in four of them.
Several residents expressed discomfort about the power political connections can buy. But for his part, Couch says his plans just reflect a need for more affordable housing.
“This will be an inclusive development versus exclusive,” Couch said, noting that his property is in the highest-income community in the county. “We’re in the middle of the most prolific housing crisis North Carolina has ever seen.”
In 2016, Couch first approached Summerfield to develop his land with a combination of homes and commercial buildings. The town’s senior planner at the time suggested adjusting the town code to allow planned development, wherein the town could negotiate for the developer to also include municipal needs like parkland or schools.
The planning board approved the proposed planned development ordinance in 2016, but a group of active and outspoken citizens soon took notice and fought back.
Priscilla Olinick, a fourth-generation Summerfield resident whose family land is almost entirely surrounded by property on Couch’s radar, was one of them. Olinick, 43, had just moved back to Summerfield with her family in 2015. She said she had never paid much attention to politics until then.
Town residents balked at the idea of the Town Council approving a planned development ordinance, and instead found a different way forward.
Citizens, not trained planners, would recommend changes to the town’s development ordinance that were in line with the town’s comprehensive plan. The committee included pro- and anti-development members, including Olinick, and spent over a year on their mission.
“It allowed density bonuses, allowed duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, accessory structures, clustering that has less infrastructure costs.” Olinick said. “OK, you wanted this; this is what we’re willing to do for you.”
In June 2021, the Town Council approved an ordinance reducing the minimum lot size from 1.3 acres to 1, and allowed a duplex or triplex structure to count as one unit. The next day, Couch wrote the town manager to propose another zoning change, which would allow the applicant to propose their own regulations on things like density and height. The inability to work within the town’s rules angered some residents.
“This has caused our community major strife,” Olinick said, “We have been fighting David for years. He has torn our town in half. He has caused so many problems in our community; he has pitted neighbors against neighbor.”
Not all citizens are opposed to the developer’s ideas. Time and again, the council-appointed planning board, which weighs in on land use decisions before they go to Town Council, has approved changing the development ordinance.
Clark Doggett, a planning board member who has lived in Summerfield for 80 years, twice voted in favor of changes Couch brought forward in March 2022 and January 2023, seeing the town’s rules as a barrier to developing more affordable housing.
“I think it’s the best for Summerfield—I think it’s the future for Summerfield,” Doggett said. “I have some people who I grew up with who live here but their children cannot afford to buy a house now. The people I know who have lived here most of their life had property before these $800,000, $900,000 homes came in.”
While residents are split on Couch’s development, next to no one wants de-annexation. On March 30, the neighboring town of Oak Ridge unanimously approved a resolution in protest of a legislative intervention in Summerfield and opposing multiple statewide bills that would override local zoning authority. Small towns followed suit to oppose state bills weakening local land use control and recognize Summerfield’s position.
For Doggett, de-annexation is the worst-case scenario. “Summerfield can lose all that tax revenue, and David Couch’s community will thrive,” he said. “I think it will be the death to Summerfield if they don’t come to some sort of agreement.”
An Affordable Housing Crisis
Couch has one big thing working in his favor: a housing crisis.
As prices climbed during the pandemic, the Greensboro branch of the NAACP began to look at towns and small cities nearby with potential for affordable housing.
“As we looked at [Summerfield], we saw some of the worst practices in the county,” Rev. Bradley Hunt, then-president of the Greensboro branch of the NAACP said. “In essence you had to be a millionaire, you had to buy at least an acre of land, you had to have a well and septic tank installed. Much of it was not feasible for lower-income people.”
Couch’s proposal seemed like an obvious first step, and Hunt sent a letter to the town manager in April 2022 describing Summerfield as a “passive participant in exclusionary zoning practices” that discriminate against people of color. The lack of affordable housing options was denying “fair and equal access” to “excellent schools and parks” and the “peaceful, safe, and attractive surroundings.”
The letter called the town “grossly segregated” and said the town’s zoning has had and continues to have an adverse effect on Black families; copied on the letter was a Washington, DC law group focused on civil rights.
The unwritten threat in the letter was that the town could be at risk of a lawsuit under the federal Fair Housing Act, a 1968 law that made it illegal to discriminate against prospective renters and homeowners on the basis of race.
In addition to direct discrimination, like not selling a home to someone on the basis of their race, or not allowing affordable housing in a community, lawyers look at whether a town’s zoning rules perpetuate segregation.
Even after redlining was deemed illegal, many communities used zoning as a tool to “prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided,” Richard Rothstein wrote in his 2017 book The Color of Law.
So-called exclusionary zoning can include things like requiring large minimum lot sizes or prohibiting multi-family homes—both of which effectively keep lower-income people out of communities with “good schools” and “low crime.” To Hunt and the Greensboro NAACP, Summerfield’s regulations signaled that they wanted to keep certain people out.
It wasn’t the first time the town’s leadership had been told they’re at risk of violating fair housing practices.
When the town was discussing the new development ordinance in 2021, town attorney Bob Hornik said at a council meeting that to avoid liability, Summerfield needed to amend its zoning ordinance to “put more dense housing, maybe even apartments, God forbid, somewhere in Summerfield.” Soon after, the town passed its new development ordinance that slightly reduced minimum lot sizes.
The town’s leadership met with members of the local NAACP branch the month after Hunt sent a letter in 2022, after which Tim Sessoms, Summerfield’s mayor, sent a letter stating that the Couch development “would have likely increased the variety of housing options (some of which are already available nearby), but not the affordability of housing.”
Whitaker said the town leadership invited the NAACP to continue to work with them on ways to improve their development ordinance, but these conversations didn’t happen. Hunt, who is no longer with the local NAACP, said he is working with a new organization that is going to continue the work against exclusionary zoning in Summerfield, and send letters to other communities.
Over the past six decades, judges have ruled that Fair Housing Act violations don’t need to intentionally discriminate—they can also include housing policies that perpetuate segregation.
But few court cases have proved that zoning which makes development onerous or expensive—such as requiring large lots, wells, and septic—is a violation of the federal law.
It’s not that every town that excludes apartments is necessarily in violation of the law, said Sara Pratt, a civil rights attorney. Proving that the zoning is inherently discriminatory is the challenge: “You can have an exclusionary zoning process that does not exclude Blacks and Latinos disproportionately.”
In that regard, it’s not clear how much Couch’s proposed development would really help. It includes largely market-rate housing. Of the 600 apartment units in the recent proposal, just 30 units would be voluntarily subsidized by the developer.
His proposal also upholds a stipulation for the town’s density bonus that requires 15 percent of the housing units would be “moderately priced” which pencils out to a $2,300 monthly mortgage.
The median selling price of single family homes over the past year in Summerfield was about $550,000, more than double the selling price for the median home in Greensboro over the same time, according to data from the real estate site Redfin.
According to Couch, the town’s development ordinance only functions to produce high-end housing. In the early 2000s, he developed an upscale subdivision in Summerfield according to the regulations, where the median home is on 1.1 acres and estimated above $800,000.
“It works to reduce development and keep lots large and keep the price of a new house at $700,000 and up,” he said. “But it doesn’t work for me and it doesn’t work for affordability.”
Summerfield’s high housing cost isn’t unique. A nationwide housing shortage coupled with high interest rates have made it difficult for lower-income and first-time buyers to afford housing.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration proposed a rule that would require most communities across the country to develop a plan that shows they are taking “meaningful actions to overcome patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and eliminate disparities in housing-related opportunities.”
But Summerfield would be one of the few communities in the country that doesn’t have to—because they don’t receive money from HUD, either directly or through the state or county.
Most residents The Assembly spoke to balked at the suggestion that all races aren’t welcome in Summerfield, and many recounted their own stories of personal or family adversity: growing up poor, being a single parent, working as a woman in male-dominated industries.
“I don’t think it’s fair that anyone suggests that [we think] we’re better than others, or that white people don’t want any other races to come to Summerfield—that is not an issue at all,” said Susan Fields, a resident since the 1990s and a former apartment manager who opposes the apartment proposal. “Can’t help it if white people make a lot of money and built these huge houses; they went to college and got the right job, made the right decisions.”
‘There’s Something About Here’
For Marlene Hawkins, 57, de-annexation “feels like betrayal.”
Hawkins said she grew up as an orphan, and she and her husband built a business in Greensboro. They moved to Summerfield 32 years ago to have space and trees for their kids to climb.
As one of the town’s residents who has been there since Summerfield first incorporated, Hawkins sees this as a fight against outside influences. “It makes it really hard for the average town citizen to counter money and power,” she said.
On a March morning, Hawkins chatted up a neighbor she assumed shared her perspective on apartments as they stood outside the town’s only coffee shop, a drive-thru, shed-like structure surrounded by picnic tables. But Hawkins was mistaken.
“It’s not cool. There’s such a sense of we don’t want it—it’s not in the unified code–but younger families can’t afford to live here,” Virginia, Hawkins’ neighbor, said. (She asked to go by her middle name because she owns a business in town.) She said she wished the developer didn’t only build luxury apartments, but added: “I’d rather have a nice apartment than no apartments.”
In interviews and at the Town Council meeting, several residents pointed out that there are multiple apartment complexes within a 10-minute drive of Summerfield’s town limits. But as others noted, they would like to downsize but continue living in the community, or have family members who would like to move closer.
Millie Hoffler-Foushee, 83, is one of them. At the April 11 Town Council meeting, Sessoms, the mayor, paused regular business to present a plaque to Hoffler-Foushee, in recognition of her 17 years of service on the town’s finance committee.
Hoffler-Foushee and her husband, 88, bought a 2,800-square foot home in Summerfield in 2004, and she was soon appointed to the committee. But now she and her husband want to downsize, and there’s nowhere in Summerfield for them to go. They were moving to a Greensboro apartment complex.
It was their last day at the home they had built. Between tears, Hoffler-Foushee told the council and attendees that it was really difficult for her: “I wanted to move, but I wanted to stay here.”
Earlier that afternoon, she’d said a prayer at the house for the new owners, and a prayer for the town’s residents who are not supporting apartments.
“I resent them for saying that putting in apartments causes crime. Are you calling me a criminal?” said Hoffler-Foushee. “I am a person who hates when people discriminate, when they label people a certain way. Who has the right to do that?
Hoffler-Foushee supports Couch’s development, but she never spoke to the Town Council in favor; she had hoped the town would reach a compromise on its own.
For Scales, the woman who spoke at a Town Council meeting, it’s not the lived experience of Summerfield that calls to her—it’s the idea of it. She remembers traveling through the town to get to her grandparents’ home as a child.
“There’s something about here,” said Scales. “That the land speaks to my heart, that you have a pull to this place.”
She remembers one barn in particular. “I told my dad when I was a little girl that I’m going to get married there,” Scales said. Today, she manages events at the same barn, which is part of one of Couch’s current developments. After work, she enjoys walking through woods and looking over the rolling pastures.
She’s just not sure she wants to live there now.
“It makes me sad that what so many people love about Summerfield is that small-town feel, that closeness that is just not there for some of us,” Scales said.
Ren Larson is a staff reporter at The Assembly. She previously worked for The Texas Tribune and ProPublica’s investigative team, and as a data reporter with The Arizona Republic. She holds a master’s of public policy and an M.A. in international and area studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
Kate Medley is a Durham-based visual journalist and filmmaker documenting the American South. Her work focuses on storytelling and environmental portraiture, often exploring issues of social justice and the shifting politics of this region. See more at her website.