A Chapel Hill-based conservation group has entered into a tentative purchase agreement with a developer planning a large commercial project on the Cape Fear River.
Diamondback Development voluntarily entered into a purchase contract with Unique Places to Save, the nonprofit group shared in a press release Tuesday. The contract entails the developer’s 83 acres on the west bank of the Cape Fear River next to the Battleship North Carolina in Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
Unique Places to Save lacks the $16 million it needs to secure the deal by the end of the year and is asking for political support and private donors to contribute to the lofty conservation endeavor. “It’s a longshot,” said nonprofit chair Jeff Fisher. “Nothing is guaranteed.”
The two parties entered into the contract in March, and so far, Fisher said the nonprofit hasn’t raised anything besides the $100,000 it initially put forth as nonrefundable due diligence funds –– a majority of which he said he personally donated.
If the plan works, the land could be utilized as a public park, Fisher said: “Eagles Island should become the natural sort of Central Park for Wilmington.”
Jay Shott, co-owner of Diamondback Development, said the purchase price is far lower than the $25 million the total acreage has appraised for. The company would receive a tax benefit based on the discount of the appraised value if it sells to the nonprofit, according to Shott.
Should the nonprofit purchase attempt fail, the developers would restart their plans to break ground. “We have all the permits necessary to move forward with the development,” Shott said. “If they aren't able to do it, if the community doesn't get behind it, then that lets us know that the community wants to see it developed.”
The proposed purchase price represents the amount Diamondback Development was prepared to sell the land to developer Bobby Ginn for, according to Fisher. “They're giving conservation a chance,” Fisher said of Diamondback Development and Ginn. “Kudos need to be given to them. If it weren’t for them giving us this opportunity, this couldn’t have happened.”
Diamondback Development was reviewed and greenlit by New Hanover County officials last year. The project is planned on 6 acres fronting the river and was already zoned B-2 regional business, so it didn’t face the same local hurdles that have slowed progress on a nearby planned riverfront commercial project, Battleship Point.
Several parcels owned by Holdings of TCM Inc. and Unique Places ILM LLC, which are subsidiaries of Diamondback Development, make up the 83 acres under contract. Fisher, who helped assemble a handful of wetland parcels as a minority owner of Unique Places ILM LLC in 2019 (a separate entity from the nonprofit), said he was grateful the development team took him up on his conservation play.
“I don’t have any decision-making rights,” Fisher said of his involvement as a co-owner of some of the parcels. “I’m just a minority owner who wanted to restore wetlands… I’ve been listening with no voice for years, always encouraging [conservation]. I was ecstatic.”
The group is eyeing grants and public and private partners to cover the steep purchase price. Soon, they should find out if a major grant they applied for through the North Carolina Land and Water Fund is successful. In nearby Brunswick County, the nonprofit owns about 450 acres dedicated for conservation purposes, according to Fisher.
“I've been really impressed with how well organized and thoughtful their approach has been to this project,” Shott said of the nonprofit.
In the spring, the conservation team had a conversation with select New Hanover and Brunswick County commissioners to apprise them of the undertaking. Fisher said there was interest, and that there is a path whereby a public partner could unlock public funding avenues currently unavailable to the nonprofit alone. A public partner could apply for funds and later obtain full funding without having to make a financial pledge, he said.
“We think we can do it just with their support,” he said. “There are other ways even outside of state and federal grants that we can fund this. Our problem is we don't have a lot of time.”
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