WILMINGTON — A large expanse of swamp forest and brackish marsh sits between the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers before they converge just south of downtown Wilmington.
This is Eagles Island, what geologist and UNCW professor Roger Shew called a “green treasure between Wilmington and the rapidly growing Brunswick County communities.” Its diverse wetlands habitat is home to 35 vegetative species, 41 birds species, and 23 mammals and reptile species, all threatened by rapid urbanization from the west and an already urbanized city to the east.
Shew is part of a group of conservationists breathing new life into a 10-year-old initiative to protect the 3,110-acre island from development and preserve its natural ecosystem. The group, called the “Eagles Island Central Park Task Force,” hopes to turn the island into a recreational and educational park.
During a virtual presentation to the Cape Fear River Watch last February, Shew said the area of most concern is to the south of the Battleship North Carolina: It could be developed in the years to come.
According to Evan Folds, who is on the board of supervisors for the New Hanover Soil and Water Conservation District (NHSWCD) and is helping lead the project, the land is owned by Diamondback Development, a company near Charlotte that has a reputation for “buying land, building value, and flipping it to developers.” The company purchased the land at an auction for more than $1.5 million in 2016.
Holdings of TCM, Inc. owns 22.6 acres of riverfront land, and its registered agent is Andrew Shott, the chief financial officer of Diamondback Property. Shortly after the sale, his brother and fellow managing partner Jason Shott claimed the company is exploring several possibilities for the land, including residential development and conservation. The company has pursued residential or mixed-use zoning rights in recent years, according to StarNews.
“Nobody wants the other side of the Cape Fear River to look like Wilmington,” Folds said, noting that surrounding towns of Leland, Navassa, and Wilmington support preservation of the island.
Three years ago, according to Folds, various stakeholders came together in an attempt to purchase the land, but they “pulled the plug on the appraisal” because of its high value.
“Anybody who does due diligence, it doesn’t make any sense to develop that land,” Folds said. “On a full moon, it floods. And the continued dredging of the harbor will raise the river by a half-inch.”
Large parts of the island have in the past been heavily inundated with flooding, the most severe due to hurricanes and other storms. Shew said the amount of flooding events has increased drastically over time, due to sea-level rise; he compared four flooding events that occurred on the island in the 1950s to 101 flooding events in 2018 – and 142 flooding events from November 2018 to August 2019.
He laid out sea-level-rise projections and their impact on the island, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). With one foot of sea rise, which he called a low projection, large parts of the land surrounding the battleship would be inundated by water. If the sea level rose by 3 feet, the entire midsection of the island would be under water.
A second push
In 2011, the NHSWCD published a 110-page report on the history of the island and a detailed inventory of its flora and fauna species. The conservation district partnered with various conservationists and local municipal governments to protect the existing natural areas on the island and the lower Cape Fear-Brunswick River Marsh complex. Its goals were to ensure water quality, protect and restore wildlife and fisheries, educate the public, and establish boating, bunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Because the group “operated with some heavy interests to produce that report,” the conservation push eventually dwindled out, according to Folds. He said it was due to jurisdictional staff members who couldn’t act independently of the interests of local governments.
“They found themselves kind of hogtied,” Folds said.
Over time, Renaissance Wilmington CEO Bill Graham and Captain Terry Bragg, executive director of the Battleship North Carolina, carried the baton of seeing through the group’s conservation efforts in order to create a “Central Park” for the region. Recently, when Graham decided to move to Mexico, Folds said Graham asked him and Lloyd Singleton, executive director of New Hanover County Extension at the Arboretum, to lead the project going forward.
The Eagles Island Central Park Task Force has been meeting over the last six months, according to Folds, with the aim of one day “establishing a park in two of the fastest growing communities in the country.”
“We’re gearing up, organizing with the group to put a face on this for public digestion,” Folds said. “And we’re trying to figure out, do we need to be an advocate for the park or to prevent development? We hope it is the former.”
He went on to say that while the group is working to bring the original vision of the Eagles Island Coalition to life, it still holds much respect for private land ownership.
“We want to be advocates, not activists. Given the extreme challenges faced with traditional commercial development on Eagles Island, we hope to inspire a best-case scenario for everyone involved,” Folds said.
The task force has proposed an Eagles Island Interpretive Center, Park and Preserve that includes a riverfront boardwalk, walking trails, a maritime museum and ice-cream shop, a canoe and kayak rental center, a regional tourism center, a boat dock and ferry landing, and picnic shelters.
Through its proposed educational initiatives, the group hopes to preserve the history of the island. Eagles Island served as home to rice plantations of the Gullah culture pre-Civil War and the largest Navy stores in the world during World War II, due to Wilmington’s emergence as a major ship-building port.
According to Shew, more than 25 sunken boats – old ferries, lifeboats, barges, tugs, and other river vessels – lie near the island along the western bank of the Cape Fear River, south of the battleship.
Ultimately, conservationists want to protect the wetlands – and the endangered species on or near the island, including the American alligator, the bald eagle, and the glossy crayfish snake. Other notable species include beavers, black bears, ospreys, white-tailed deer, water moccasins, and great blue herons.
When Dick Brightman, executive director of Keep New Hanover Beautiful, introduced Shew for the February presentation, he noted one of the geologists’ favorite sayings, modified from a quote from the famous conservationists Aldo Leopold. Those who show a lack of connection with their natural environment, Brightman recalled of Shew, “believe that food comes from the grocery, heat comes from the furnace, and water comes from the tap.”
“It is the group’s belief that we need more connection to the natural environment, and that the opportunity to pursue preservation of the unique ecosystems found on Eagles Island – and educate the public around the deep historical ties that Eagles Island has on the history of Southeastern North Carolina and the stories that it can tell us about the future impacts of climate change, and develop recreational opportunities that can be enjoyed by all – is a perfect and rare opportunity to achieve this vision,” Folds said.
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