Sunday, November 27, 2022

‘No viable path forward’: The deal to conserve 82 acres on Eagles Island dries up

Unique Places to Save announced Tuesday it ended a contract with Diamondback Development to purchase 82 acres of land on Eagles Island. (Courtesy Eagles Island Task Force)

WILMINGTON — A tumultuous attempt to conserve a section of Eagles Island is over after the failure to secure state funding and garner support from private investors.

Chapel Hill nonprofit Unique Places to Save announced Tuesday it ended a contract with Diamondback Development to buy a combined 82 acres for $16 million. The group points to missing out on a $12.2-million grant from the North Carolina Land and Water Fund as the primary reason for ceasing the contract.

READ MORE: Eagles Island conservation plan on thin ice in wake of minimal local support

“Unique Places to Save was counting on the state’s support to create the momentum needed to get private philanthropic donors on the table,” a press release from the nonprofit noted. 

The plan to buy the property on the western banks of the Cape Fear River originated earlier in the year and by summer the nonprofit put down $100,000 on the purchase contract. It was given a deadline to raise the rest of the money by the end of 2022.

The goal — based on The Eagles Island Task Force vision — was to turn the land into park space, education and historic centers, honing in on the area’s Gullah Geechee heritage and maritime history, as well as create pathways for visitors to explore trails, kayak and participate in birding opportunities. Formal details of these plans were never hashed out fully.

“Without NCLWF’s support and no other viable state or federal grants for land acquisition, the project has gone cold and there appears to be no major donors who are interested in preserving the land and, therefore, no viable path forward,” the release noted.

PCD reported earlier in the month the nonprofit missed out on the funding because of NCLWF’s concerns over the land’s price tag versus its appraisal, a lax conservation plan, and lack of formal support garnered from any public entities. 

In the wake of being rejected, UP2S executive director Clark Harris — who was hired to lead the project’s fundraising efforts in August — told PCD it did not mean the deal was done. He said the focus would be on creating a strong strategy to secure financial support from private investors.

On Tuesday, Harris said the nonprofit looked for major donors in its private partners but did not find any willing contributors. He said the nonprofit is out $100,000 on the deal, and all other donations it did receive since launching a fundraising campaign in June will be reverted to its ongoing Alligator Creek restoration project on the island. 

UP2S is investing $2.6 million in the creek with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It’s one of over 20 projects the decade-old nonprofit is currently preserving. It also holds 5,429 acres of conservation easements and more than 100 miles of waterways across the country.

Harris did not reveal donation totals that came in from the Eagles Island project.

With the UP2S conservation effort dead in the water, 14 acres — purchased by Diamondback Development in foreclosure in 2015 — are back on the table to be transformed into the 100-foot Wilmington Hotel and Spa by developer Bobby Ginn. 

The plan to build the hotel and spa predates the conservation group’s intentions. Ginn submitted his resort site plans in November 2021. It’s currently zoned for business, and developers only need state and federal permitting for the by-right project. 

In July, Diamondback owner Jay Shott told Port City Daily he was impressed with UP2S and the project was “dependent on whether the public wants this to happen or not.” Plans for the hotel and spa were put on hold after the technical review committee assessment, as a result of the transfer of the contract to UP2S. 

Eighty-two acres of Eagles Island is located within a 100-year flood zone, meaning it’s high risk for water accumulation. Yet, 14 acres along the riverfront is not; those uplands are partially where the hotel and spa are slated to be built.

Shott said the financial payoff would be about the same whether the area was developed or conserved.

The land was originally valued at $26 million, but Diamondback would have received a tax break for the difference of the $16 million he was willing to sell it to UP2S via mitigation credits.

Shott told Port City Daily Tuesday he was disappointed to see the UP2S deal fall through.

“They worked hard on the project,” he said. 

At the NCLWF meeting on Sept. 20, chair Jason Walser questioned whether the hotel development would come to fruition given the rising costs of construction.

Shott said he will consult with his partners on next steps in the coming weeks when PCD asked about the future of the land. He also added he would be happy to work with UP2S again.


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