Tuesday, December 6, 2022

30 years in the making, a park is getting built near Monkey Junction

Hanover Pines Nature Park will feature a network of trails woven throughout the 40 acres. The end is in sight for the long-awaited project. (Port City Daily)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Nearly three decades have passed since New Hanover County purchased a parcel near Monkey Junction with intentions of building a new park on the land. Those plans are now moving along.

The 42.5-acre project off Carolina Beach Road was formerly called “Battle Park,” and it faced a rocky path after the land was bought from the Cameron family in 1992 with park bond money. 

A design team was hired in late 2019; this summer the county budgeted money for the construction of the park. It’s now called “Hanover Pines Nature Park” and is expected to be finished sometime next year, according to parks and gardens director Tara Duckworth.

Hanover, Pines will be a “passive park,” Duckworth said. Most of the land will be left undisturbed, and a network of trails and bridges can provide viewing points for the wetlands and wildlife on the site. A fitness station, playground and parking lot will be built on six acres in the center of the property. 

Duckworth said there’s a meeting planned Wednesday with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality about permitting, and then other red tape conversations with the N.C. Department of Transportation will follow. 

“The good thing is we’ve met with all of these firms prior to this, so this is not their first look,” Duckworth said. “We will go to bid as soon as we get our permits in hand.”

The opening of Hanover Pines will mark a victory for a group of advocates that has been pressing county leaders for years to finish the project. 

The county bought the then-Battle Park land for $470,00. The nearby land where Veterans Park was built was purchased in 1997 for $3.8 million. 

According to a StarNews report, the county considered selling Battle Park in 2002 and pushed the plans to the background as Veterans Park took the spotlight.

In a May 2006 election, 67% of voters approved a $35.5 million parks bond referendum, which earmarked $1 million for Battle Park. 

The land still sat untapped. Then a developer made an offer to the county in 2008. By that point, the county had invested an additional $10.6 million on Veterans Park and the offer was seriously considered, according to StarNews reporting.

Estimates for the sale were reportedly between $6.5 and $9.3 million, but the developer’s offer was withdrawn after public outcry.

Rex Burford, a retired lawyer from West Virginia, is part of the neighborhood group that campaigned for Battle Park. He said it annoyed him to see the park identified in plans for the 2006 bond but ignored in the years after. 

“I was just sort of upset that they passed the bond issue and didn’t bother to do what they said,” Burford said. “As a lawyer that just sort of stuck in my craw a little bit.”

Duckworth said the 2006 bond money listed for Battle Park was ultimately directed to Northern Regional Park in Castle Hayne, and that over the years a number of ideas for the site have been proposed.

Draft site plans for Hanover Pines Nature Park. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

“It went through several possibilities in the process,” Duckworth said. “I know there was at one time some discussion about having a fire station on it, kind of making it dual purpose — maybe even a library at one time.”

The proximity to Veterans Park factored into the county’s previous hesitancy to move forward on Battle Park, and also influenced their decision to seriously think about selling the land, a prospect that came up again a few times after 2008. 

County manager Chris Coudriet told WECT in 2012 that the money dedicated to Battle Park in the bond referendum wasn’t set in stone: “When you think back to the ballot question, it was not voting for x number of dollars for this project. It was a larger $35.5 million to improve the park system.”

One of Burford’s compatriots in the quest for a park, Chass Hood, said they hosted meetings individually with commissioners in previous years, laying out their pitch for the merits of a passive park.

Hanover Pines Nature Park, as it’s called now, gained solidity after getting $2.34 million in county funding from this fiscal year’s budget. The unique frog species on the site will make for prime environmental education components, Duckworth said. 

“It’s Hanover Pines’ turn,” she said. “Hopefully it will all come together very seamlessly and we’ll have a park in the ground in ’22.”

When he first learned of the idea for the park, Burford thought it was a “winner,” he said. Now he’s happy to see the spirit of the 2006 parks bond referendum fulfilled. 

“If you tell the people something and they vote for it, they kind of expect it,” Burford said. 

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