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Land In Play

By Cece Nunn, posted Aug 19, 2022
Clark Harris (from left), executive director of Unique Places to Save, and Jeff Fisher, the organization’s board chair, want their organization to buy property across from downtown Wilmington for a park (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
On Eagles Island, could an attempt to create a park – instead of a 100-foot-tall hotel with a spa – really work?
 
A nonprofit group is trying, but officials with the group have said it will cost them $16 million by the end of the year to buy the 83 acres where the hotel and spa have been proposed. 

According to an announcement in July, the organization Unique Places to Save hopes to preserve those 83 acres, located between the Battleship North Carolina and U.S. 17, after putting the property under contract. Completing the deal will require fundraising, possibly from both public and private sources.
 
Wanting to conserve an area’s natural beauty is one thing; doing something about it is another, much more complicated task, conservationists say. Cost isn’t the only hurdle people have to clear when it comes to conserving natural settings.
 

MONEY TALKS

On Aug. 10, the N.C. Coastal Land Trust announced that it bought 265 acres along the Cape Fear River in Bladen County. The purchase by the nonprofit agency took several years of work, including getting funding from at least seven different public and private sources for the nearly $770,000 deal.
 
“It takes a lot of effort because one pot won’t fund the whole thing,” explained Janice Allen, director of land protection for the trust. “That’s what makes conservation so tricky for us.”
She said transparency is also important.
 
“Everybody’s looking at what we do, and it’s a good thing. People want to know where their dollars are sent and that they’re spent wisely,” Allen said. “We’re not the typical buyer; we can’t just pay whatever we want for a tract … that’s now how it works.
 
“We have to get appraisals done and negotiate based on those appraisals.”
 
One source of funding for conservation (not including the recent Bladen deal) is the N.C. Land and Water Fund, which requires two appraisals for any project over half a million dollars, and those appraisals are reviewed by the state, Allen said.
 
Jeff Fisher, board chair of Chapel Hill-based Unique Places to Save, said appraisals for the Eagles Island property came in at $25 million for one and $26 million for an appraisal following that one. 
 
Fisher and Unique Places to Save declined to provide the Greater Wilmington Business Journal with a copy of the appraisal, which Fisher said is in the hands of the state. 
 
Fisher said the organization, now led by new executive director Clark Harris, expects to soon hear about whether their application for a major grant from­ the N.C. Land and Water Fund for the Eagles Island proposal is successful.
 
A native of Wilson and an outdoor enthusiast, Asheville-based Harris said he has ties to Wilmington through family and from visiting the area regularly throughout his life.
 
Harris and Fisher said they see possibilities for turning the Eagles Island property into a “central park,” which could have different amenities for public use depending on what the community wants, such as walking trails, boardwalks, water access for kayakers and stand-up paddleboards, and even a history museum. 
 
Fisher said he owns a minority stake in the wetlands on the property, not located in the portion where the hotel and spa have been planned, but he doesn’t have decision-making rights on the buying or selling end. The majority owner is Diamondback Development.
 
Jay Shott, co-owner of Diamondback Development, said in a Business Journal story that the company would receive a tax benefit based on the discount of the appraised value if it sells to the nonprofit. 
 
But should the nonprofit purchase fall through, the developers would restart the hotel and spa plans, having obtained necessary permits to move forward, Shott said.
 
Fisher said he’s giving a chunk of his own money to the Eagles Island effort and putting the land under contract, which required $50,000 immediately and $50,000 after the N.C. Land and Water grant decision.
 
“If people don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it. It’s expensive. I personally gave a lot of money to lock it up. … I know in my heart I did what I needed to do to give conservation a chance,” Fisher said. “It’s up to the community now.”  
 

WHAT COULD BE

As of last year, about 51 square miles (more than 32,000 acres) of undeveloped land was left in northern unincorporated New Hanover County and 7 square miles in southern New Hanover County, said Rebekah Roth, the county’s planning and land use director, in an email, adding “not all of this land is necessarily prime for development. In the Sidbury Road area, currently almost 7,000 acres of land are undeveloped and not under public ownership (primarily NCDOT).”
 
Conserving land in Wilmington and New Hanover County, where some property is much more expensive than that of Bladen, comes with its own specific complications. 
 
Officials and residents can sometimes have some say in what kind of development occurs on a piece of property, including in the case of a rezoning or special use permit, and can also express their interest in conservation.
 
For the west bank of the Cape Fear River, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners met Thursday in a work session to discuss what they’d like to see there and what they want the county staff to do next with regards to the area.
 
In advance of the meeting, the staff prepared profiles of five development scenarios for the property across the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers from downtown Wilmington. The scenarios are, according to the county documents:
 • Conservation: preservation/restoration of the land in a natural state;
 • Limited Use: restriction of high-impact activities;
 • Working Waterfront: continuation of existing waterfront businesses and similar operations;
 • Small Scale Mixed-Use: a mix of nonresidential and residential uses at low- to moderate-height and density; and
 • Urban Scale Mixed-Use: a mix of nonresidential and residential uses at moderate- to high-height and density.
 
“These scenarios have been informed by conversations held with a variety of external stakeholders, including other regulatory agencies, planning staff for adjacent jurisdictions, property owners/developers, and key stakeholders involved in the project-specific discussions this past winter, and all include tradeoffs,” according to meeting documents. But they also note multiple options could work. 
 

ECONOMIC IMPACT

A mix makes sense to Brian Eckel, a developer and commercial real estate broker who co-founded Wilmington-based Cape Fear Commercial. His firm’s development affiliate, Cape Fear Development, announced in June that it’s planning two mixed-use projects along the Cape Fear River. Eckel’s firm is not involved in the Eagles Island hotel and spa plan on the site Unique Places to Save has under contract.
 
“I think all of us that call Wilmington our home have the same goal, which is to see our city thrive. A huge part of the uplifting of Wilmington that’s going to be happening in the years to come is going to involve the western riverfront; for Eagles Island, it seems like a mix of preservation and new development is going to be the optimal outcome,” he said in an email. 
 
“As a strong believer in private property rights, it will take private property owners, community leaders and other key stakeholders all coming together to achieve this common goal.”
 
A park on riverfront land could be a good idea when it comes to the area’s financial health, said Ed McMahon, senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a national nonprofit research and education organization focused on real estate and land use.
 
“Parks are a driver of economic development,” he said. “But a park that no one is using or just a passive piece of green space that somebody is just looking at and not really accessing is not going to be as successful from an economic development standpoint as green space that is programmed,” with activities such as fitness classes and events or amenities such as biking, hiking and running trails.
 
Eckel said pairing Wilmington’s urban riverfront with the surrounding natural ecosystem “is obviously one of our city’s strongest assets. New, modern development and preservation are both going to be a large part of the story for the riverfront over the next decade”
 
For land by a river or other waterway, access is key, McMahon said.
 
“Almost everywhere,” he said, “the key to revitalization in cities has been opening up their water to the public.”
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