Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Don’t get your hopes up: NCDOT says no plans to conserve wetlands area after Hampstead Bypass completed

Last fall the state purchased land (pictured) adjacent to the Topsail High football and track field from a developer for $17.5 million. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

HAMPSTEAD — The state has no plans to conserve wetlands – home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker – that make up a northeastern portion of a 660-acre property adjacent to Holly Shelter Game Land.

After a five-year court battle with the prior owner — a national development firm called Jamestown — the North Carolina Department of Transportation agreed to settle through mediation and purchase the land for $17.5 million. Jamestown filed suit in 2014, and joined hundreds of landowners across the state who fought the state’s now-defunct Map Act powers to freeze land without fair compensation.

Last week, a Wilmington attorney, Ryal Tayloe, who represented Jamestown in the case, told Port City Daily the NCDOT was looking to deed the remaining land to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission so it could be added to the massive game land bordering the property to the northeast. 

RELATED: State buys future Hampstead Bypass land for $17.5m, bill could shield Wilmington from litigation

Several days later, a communications officer with NCDOT said the transportation department “has not determined what it will do with the land once the bypass is complete.” The officer, Lauren Haviland, said NCDOT may use the land for a future road project or to build an office for the department, but such discussions are now premature.

“The NCDOT would try to utilize everything that we purchase,” Haviland explained. “There are so many different avenues we could go down to determine how we could utilize that land.”

A spokesperson for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which owns the adjacent game land, said the state agency has no current plans “to conserve any portion of the land” after completion of the bypass. 

In response, Tayloe clarified on Wednesday “there was no commitment for DOT to do anything with the property upon completion of the highway construction, but they deeded other property that they purchased to the north of the Jamestown to the Wildlife Commission, so I assume that is what they will ultimately do with this property.” 

“But that is just an assumption on my part,” Tayloe said, apologizing for not making himself clear last week. 

In February 2020, a group of Hampstead residents successfully protested a proposed sand mine after Jamestown realized it could not build out a large mixed-use development because of the state’s seizure of the land. The company said it would operate the mine for a decade before turning the property into protected land, including a foraging area for red-cockaded woodpeckers on the northeastern side of the property.

When asked by local conservationist Andy Wood if the company would consider selling the land for conservation purposes, Charlotte engineer Russel Weil — who was helping Jamestown manage the project — said the company would be open to those discussions. 

“We believe at the end of the day this ought to be a conservation zone,” Weil told Wood and a crowd of protesters at the Hampstead Public Library.

Janice Allen, director of land protection at the Coastal Land Trust, said on Wednesday the conservation group has no plans to try to conserve the land because of its high development value and because it would make more sense to deed the northeastern portion to the state-owned game land beside it. 

“We cover 31 counties, and we’re looking at ecologically significant land. Land adjacent to Holly Shelter, if it’s in decent shape, is important. But if it’s a high development value, we just can’t compete. It’s very difficult for us to raise that kind of money,” Allen said.

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