Friday, September 30, 2022

Conservation of the CF western banks: Balancing the value of land vs. quality of life

Eagles Island is just one portion of the western banks currently in the process of being acquired by UP2S for limited-use conservation. (Courtesy/Eagles Island Task Force)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The land across the Cape Fear River has been a contentious topic over the last year. Environmentalists, historians and residents opposing large-scale development want to see the property preserved or converted for limited-use. Meanwhile, developers are eyeing the acreage as prime real estate. 

The county has been balancing the values of all potential land use and weighing options on how to proceed, as land falls into its zoning jurisdiction.

READ MORE: What about the future of Cape Fear’s western banks? County staff favors 3 options, commissioners request studies

New Hanover’s planning director, Rebekah Roth, offered county commissioners five scenarios during last month’s work session for the western banks, between the Cape Fear Memorial and Isabel Holmes bridges, ranging from conservation to full urban mixed-use development. She suggested a combination of three zoning options: limited use, working waterfront and small-scale mixed-use.

The proposal implies conservation — which would be the most “restrictive” and relinquish the county of any investments in utilities or roadways needed for development or future public use — is out. Roth clarified with Port City Daily that’s not necessarily true. Only no-use conservation is off the table, as it’s legally unable to be regulated by a local government; limited-use conservation, which may still require additional expenses from the county, is in.

Coastal Plain Conservation Group director Andy Wood wants to see the land completely protected, including wildlife habitat and wetlands, which would also help shield the area from the effects of storm surge and erosion. Wood said he is concerned with the heightened flooding already experienced along the banks. In 2020, Eagle’s Island, for example, experienced 174 flood events. 

“The sites will flood to a greater extent with each passing year,” Wood said.

Flooding remains top-of-mind for most environmentalists and residents opposing construction across the river.

Seventy acres of the western banks fall in a special flood hazard area where risks are very high, with a 1% chance of flooding each year, according to FEMA flood risk maps.

In the long run, the land is in better hands without impervious surface increasing the chances of rising waters.

Based on the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan, its 2022 Economic Mobility Report and the current zoning of the land, there is a desire for the land to be used by the public in some way.

“Our land-use authorities require that we allow for reasonable use — meaning that we can’t impose no-use conservation of land through zoning,” Roth said. “That type of regulation has been considered a ‘taking’ of property invalidated by the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.”

Regulating “no-use” conservation would require participation from private property owners through conservation easements, not local zoning initiatives. 

County staff studied roughly 70 acres — combined tracts of land owned by at least seven different entities — that have a $16-million tax value, if fully developed.

Some of the land is zoned industrial use and 29 acres are riverfront mixed-use (RFMU). KFJ Development has requested the county create an updated urban riverfront mixed-use development district for its proposed Battleship Point — three 200-plus-foot towers to include 550 condos, 300 apartments, a hotel and commercial space — to be built north of Eagles Island on Point Peter. 

Yet, large urban mixed-use also seems to be off the table per the county’s recommendations. Commissioners will vote in October to deny KFJ’s proposal while it further deliberates other options, as suggested by county staff and the county manager last month.

“In my opinion, nothing should be built in the proposed RUMXZ sites, including infrastructure for nature viewing,” Wood said. “Boardwalks and people are not what the plants and wildlife need, assuming our concern is about protecting the environment.”

The benefits of conserving the property, at least in limited form, vary and go beyond monetary benefit, according to Unique Places to Save (UP2S).

The statewide nonprofit uses a public-private strategy to tackle ecological efforts and holds conservation easements across the country. It has a lofty goal to raise millions of dollars to preserve 82 acres along the western banks, which crosses into both New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

The portion of the riverfront property UP2S is working to acquire is owned by Diamondback Development and faces imminent development by resort guru Bobby Ginn, who wanted to purchase the land to build Wilmington Hotel and Spa. Diamondback and Ginn agreed in July to give UP2S the opportunity to buy the land at a “discounted rate”; it is appraised at $26 million but Diamondback is willing to offload it to the nonprofit for $16 million and receive a tax break on the price difference. 

UP2S secured part of Eagles Island under contract with a $100,000 down payment. It has until the end of the year to assemble needed funds, and if it does not succeed, the hotel and spa will move forward. 

Limited use is what UP2S is working toward on Eagle’s Island, with a vision to put all but 9 acres in a state-owned conservation easement the nonprofit would manage. The intended goal aligns with that of the Eagle’s Island Task Force — a group of local stakeholders who started in 2020 with a shared vision to establish the island as a nature park.

The task force released a 2021 study to include public water access, boardwalks for nature viewing, educational signage and multi-use paths for recreation.

County commissioners deliberate the pros and cons of various land-use options for the western banks at a work session last month.

Measuring the benefits of conservation

Even if conservation doesn’t bring as many tax base dollars to New Hanover as development might, the benefits provide value in other ways, UP2S executive director Clark Harris explained last week.

Resilience to flooding, preserving cultural heritage, added recreational space and the indirect benefit of tourism dollars are all part of its conservation reach.

READ MORE: What is UP2S? Nonprofit of ‘eternal optimists’ tackling multimillion-dollar initiative to save Eagles Island

Hired in August, Harris submitted a $12-million grant to the North Carolina Land and Water Fund. A decision should be made by Sept. 20 on whether the nonprofit will receive the full amount.

“We’re not really considering getting no funding,” he said. “We don’t see a scenario where they will pass.”

Harris’ confidence stems from NCLWF’s site visit Aug. 30; the Eagles Island project scored an 84 out of 100 points in terms of priority funding. He said it puts the project “at a competitive level.”

Yet, scoring and ranking high are not guarantees of an award. Harris noted the $12-million ask to NCLWF is greater than the average grant awarded, but he remains optimistic in light of the project’s positive ratings.

“If you’re 100th on the list, by the time they get to you, they might be out of funds,” Harris explained.

NCLWF reported Thursday it received 88 submissions.

UP2S’s request falls just behind the No. 1-ranked Catawba Lands Conservancy, which wants to acquire 57 acres in Gaston County, located in the Piedmont region of the state.

“It’s a matter of the board recognizing the incredible potential impact on the community that funding in its entirety can have on the residents and tourists in Wilmington,” Harris said.

Harris surmises UP2S’s project ranked high because it will serve a combined approximation of 450,000 people in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. It also will celebrate the land, originally rice fields cultivated by the Gullah Geechee people nearly 300 years ago until the early 1900s. It’s also rife with maritime history, and its ecological resilience and public access, as compared to other projects in more rural areas, will have an overall impact.

“This is a visible project; a high-profile project,” Harris said. 

The reality that it will be developed otherwise also plays a role, he added: “the fact that [developer] Bobby Ginn is so hungry for the property.”

That determination for development is evident in the five years of prep and planning already in the works for the Wilmington Hotel and Spa to come to fruition if UP2S does not succeed.

“Healthy wetlands are able to accommodate rising water much more than development,” Harris said about their plan for conservation.

The Eagles Island Task Force and UP2S have a vision to create a nature park and allow for public access at Eagles Island, as opposed to full-scale development. (Courtesy/Eagles Island Task Force)

Feeding tourism dollars

While development would infuse direct tax dollars into the county, conservation efforts also come with their own value, specifically in terms of tourism dollars and  for residential quality of life. It’s something the county acknowledged in plans for the western banks from the 1980s and 1990s — preservation of land with recreational amenities.

According to the Eagles Island Task Force’s “2021 Eagles Island Nature Park Study,” additional positive attributes associated with parks include increased property values, providing the county with direct income through taxes; better health of residents, in turn providing a direct savings of medical expenses; and “savings provided to the county government through the influence that open space has on social cohesion as well as the ecosystem services it provides.”

Parks are also a prosperous industry across the country. 

In 2019, the National Recreation and Parks Association reported local public park and recreation agencies in the United States generated nearly $218 billion in economic activity, supported 1.3 million jobs and boosted labor income by more than $68 billion.

In North Carolina, that amounted to a $6-billion economic impact in 2019. 

The association found 82% of corporate executives rate overall well-being as an important factor in choosing a location for business. In turn, this could result in more companies favoring the county for relocation, adding to an overall economic impact.

Tourists are drawn to North Carolina’s parks, and during the pandemic, the use of green space flourished even more, with it being a safe place to gather. According to the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, in 2021 a record high 22.8 million people visited various parks in the state, in turn also spending in area restaurants, shops and hotels.

The Cape Fear region reported record tourism spending in 2021, totaling $2.1 billion, with roughly $930 million spent in New Hanover County.

Dollars infused into the economy from visitors also benefit locals. Last year, county residents’ taxes were offset $319 as a result.

Roth acknowledged there could be an indirect tax base increase tied to tourism if the area were conserved, but the staff has not analyzed any numbers indicating as much at this time. She said additional studies, in the works now, would need to be done to determine other values limited-use conservation could bring.

The 83 acres UP2S is raising funds to acquire faces imminent development of the Wilmington Hotel and Spa if it does not succeed. (Courtesy/New Hanover County)

UP2S’ continued efforts

If granted the full amount from North Carolina Land and Water Fund, the UP2S team, Harris said, is confident it can raise the remaining $4 million from private donations. No large donations have come in at this time, he confirmed, but outreach has yet to begin.

As noted in UP2S’ application to NCLWF, the grant would guarantee a $10-million match from current landowner Diamondback Development.

Once the grant results are revealed, a strategy will be implemented to secure the remainder. UP2S hired Capital Development — a consulting firm out of Winston-Salem that helped with Cameron Art Museum’s capital campaign this year — to lead the efforts.

Normally, securing donations of this size would take a lot longer. UP2S have a mission to do it quickly but strategically to form relationships with statewide philanthropists willing to chip in toward the cause. Harris said UP2S hasn’t publicly pushed its campaign widespread, since it’s looking to tackle six- and seven-figure donations rather than piece-meal small community contributions. Though in the first three days it announced its plans, it secured $3,000 from 23 individuals. There are nearly 60 community members listed on UP2S’ website as having contributed or publicly announced support of its plans.

For larger donations being sought, everyone might not sign on during this first of three phases, either, Harris explained. UP2S will have to continue a campaign beyond phase one, the land purchase, to fulfill its remaining vision of cultivating a nature preserve and park for community access.

Phase two will consist of restoration, and phase three involves development of public access and amenities. 

“Some donors might not have an appetite for acquisition but maybe for the restoration portion, or building a museum,” Harris said. “Even if they say no on this part, they might come back.”


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