CAROLINA BEACH — With an agreement reached to end years of lawsuits fought by the town over beach access at Freeman Park, a host of options are on the table to fund the acquisition of more than 300 acres of coastal land.
Last November, town council declared at a special meeting — one of the final appearances for the outgoing members — that Carolina Beach would purchase the Freeman Park acreage for $7 million. The deal brought closure to litigation and disputes first ignited in 2018 when the town, through eminent domain, sought an easement for beach renourishment from the landowners, who over the years had amassed hundreds of acres previously owned by the Freeman family.
Now, with the roadmap at hand, Carolina Beach is exploring multiple means of funding the land purchase. It would lead to the permanent conservation of the acreage and allow the town to collaborate more with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on erosion mitigation in the area.
Mayor Lynn Barbee sent letters to members of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners in late January, asking the county to grant $3 million toward the total purchase price and noting that the park would be the largest in the county. “The opportunity to participate in saving 300 acres of property for open space is not likely to come again in New Hanover,” he wrote.
In support of the request, Barbee reported that county residents who do not live in Carolina Beach “accounted for 69%, 71%, and 74%” of Freeman Park’s users for the last three years. Carolina Beach residents, in turn, represented between 11% and 13% of the park’s visitors.
“Our main goal is to preserve 319 acres of pristine coastal environment for low impact use by the public,” Barbee wrote to Port City Daily in an email. “We invite our partners at the county, state and federal level with similar interests to join us in this endeavor.”
The New Hanover commissioners deliberated on the $3-million request at a budget work session Feb. 3. There was little enthusiasm for it. “Before anybody even thinks about spending money down there, I would certainly suggest a visit,” said chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman. (A county spokesperson said no further conversation has been scheduled to discuss the topic; Olson-Boseman said Thursday, to her knowledge, “nothing further has been discussed and there is no official position on the request at this time.”)
“Our intent is to make a formal request to begin the discussions with the county,” Barbee wrote.
Barbee added town council will discuss the pursuit of financing options at a workshop next Tuesday, Feb. 22. While the settlement agreement calls for the limited liability companies currently in ownership of the Freeman Park land to finance the $7-million purchase, Barbee said council could seek another route. The town has also said it plans to use Freeman Park user fees to help fund the deal.
“The owner financing offered in the settlement agreement is not optimal and we believe we can find better financing in the market,” Barbee wrote.
The town has sent out request for proposals (RFP) to potential financiers, according to town documents, stating a desire “to enter into an installment financing agreement” not to exceed $3.25 million, for a term of 10 years. According to the RFP, the town expects to obtain approval from the Local Government Commission for the deal and close the transaction by early April.
Carolina Beach has also signaled to the New Hanover County Tourism Development Agency (TDA) that it wants to apply future room occupancy tax funding toward the purchase of Freeman Park, according to a TDA document.
“It’s a fluid situation. It keeps changing,” said council member Mike Hoffer. “And even if it is owner-financed, there’s no early payment penalties on this thing.”
Bringing the hundreds of acres under town control would patch previous issues involving procuring easements for beach renourishment: No longer will the opposition of property owners pose an issue for the town in making Freeman Park available for the placement of dredge spoils, once the purchase goes through.
Carolina Beach already owned the parcel required to access Freeman Park, which allows it to charge for entry. Sales for Freeman Park annual permits, which cost $225, end Mar. 1, according to the town. The daily rate for four-wheel-drive vehicles is $50 between April and September.
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