NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The decision to close Snows Cut Park came down from county leaders on Monday, ending a decades-long cat-and-mouse game between the park and continual erosion.
On the southern edge of New Hanover County mainland, Snows Cut Park peers across the cut toward Pleasure Island. Ninety years ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the 90-foot channel; since then its width ballooned by hundreds of feet. Around 50 acres of the Corp’s land — originally 200 acres stretching the shores from Myrtle Grove Sound to the Cape Fear River — was erased by severe erosion.
Tara Duckworth, New Hanover County Parks and Gardens director, said the fight against earth-moving forces — the natural stripping power of the currents and the damage to the banks stemming from boat wakes — is hardly a new problem. What’s new, she said, are the sinkholes.
A bleak Catch-22 poses another difficulty: The septic system has failed, but repairs would require the removal of around 40 trees, which would only further aggravate erosion, Duckworth said.
“This has been a long time coming, and I would venture to say, expected,” Duckworth said. “It’s always been an issue for us, and not necessarily just about the erosion. The water is really swift through the cut, and unfortunately we’ve seen some drownings periodically in there.”
A Wilmington StarNews report from July 2000 foreshadowed the eventual outcome, describing a scene of “fallen turkey oaks, uprooted pines and a collapsed stairway;” and above, “the exposed roots of the next victims dangle like octopuses.”
“Another couple more storms and we may decide that’s enough,” Neal Lewis, former parks and recreation director, told the publication. “Who knows, we may have to relocate this park and give in to natural forces.”
Both Hurricane Florence (2018) and Isaias (2020) dealt damage to the county’s river areas, Duckworth said.
“There’s so many factors I think at play here that are helping to erode it, and that’s why the last couple of years, the sinkholes have gotten worse,” Duckworth said.
The county leased land for the park, as well as surrounding acreage, from the Corps since the mid-1900s; the termination of that lease was announced Monday, but a one-year notice is required.
The final straw came by way of the county’s insurance provider, Duckworth said. It was clear in 2020 the park and its unstable banks would pose headaches for the county’s coverage, but the provider did not rush to force an ultimatum with a novel coronavirus pandemic emerging on the scene, Duckworth said.
“Insurance finally said to us, ‘Look, at the end of this fiscal year, we will not offer liability insurance to New Hanover County unless you close the park,’” Duckworth added.
Over time, some of the land leased to the county by the Corps has been reverted back to Army control. Duckworth said property east of Snows Cut Park has been reclaimed as federal land, used as a spoil deposit site for dredging events. Equipment from the park will be moved to River Road Park, only a few miles away.
Discussions have also taken place regarding reports of homeless camps on the Corps-controlled land, sparked by a Mar. 25 email written by a local businessperson who decried the fact that “Homeless camp/trail” had been emblazoned on Google Maps near their new RV park.
Google Maps has had an off-and-on feature for a few years that allows users to suggest edits to the nuances of a map. Glenda Westbrook, on behalf of the business, wrote in an email to Port City Daily: “This has not negatively affected our business at Snow’s Cut RV Retreat. However, we are concerned with Google Maps incorrectly listing this Homeless Trail in the area, where there are no homeless people whatsoever.”
Randy Evans, a reverend who founded The Feast Gathering and Walking Tall, organizations that provide food and services to unsheltered populations in Wilmington, said the area near Snows Cut has traditionally been the site of an encampment. Still, he said, that area also runs along a bike path.
“In Snows Cut Park, if there are individuals in poverty living there, and they’re told they have to leave, there’s a good chance that they could eventually migrate back there,” Evans said.
Chief Deputy Kenneth Sarvis of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office was asked in April to mention the situation to patrol in the area. The Corps would be required to sign off on any proactive policing activities on its land. There have been at least 75 sheriff’s incidents stemming from the park’s address in 2021, according to records. That number is not high, according to an NHCSO spokesperson, and the majority of the situations were non-urgent patrol events called Focus & Foot Patrol. The spokesperson added that an environmental detective “is investigating the homeless camp at Snows Cut.”
Duckworth said reports of homeless camps at Snows Cut did not factor into the county’s decision to terminate the lease for the entirety of the Snows Cut holdings.
The cut was serviced for erosion issues previously in 2016, yet deterioration could not be curtailed in the following years.
“We acknowledge the ongoing erosion challenges along various parts of Snows Cut to include the area adjacent [to] the New Hanover County outgrant,” a spokesperson for the Corps’ Wilmington District wrote in an email. “We have previously leveraged storm supplemental funds to stabilize various sections of Snow’s Cut (sic) shoreline but, to date, resources have been inadequate to address all areas along Snow’s Cut that experience erosion.”
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