Conservation on Wilmington’s West Shore hits a funding hurdle

An 80+ acre conservation attempt on the west bank of the Cape Fear River met a roadblock this week when it failed to secure support from state funds after questions arose on the valuation of the land in question.

The environmental nonprofit Unique Places to Save had hoped to leverage funding from the state’s land and water fund to buy 82 acres of Eagles Island wetlands, but after hours of heated debate, the council d The administration voted on Tuesday not to fund the purchase of the land, citing concerns. on the price of land as well as a lack of clear support from local leaders.

Unique Places to Save had hoped the state money would boost their fundraising efforts, according to executive director Clark Harris. Nonetheless, the project, he said, is still alive and well.

The group plans to focus on approaching large private donors and partnering with other local leaders. But the land and water fund’s decision does not change the group’s fundraising approach.

“The strategy is always the same,” Harris said. “We now have a lot more ground to make up for.”

In early 2022, Unique Places to Save paid $100,000 to secure a contract with landowner Diamondback Development to buy the land on Eagles Island, a 3,100-acre strip across the river from the center -City of Wilmington. Diamondback plans to build a 146-room hotel and spa on the site.

Views of downtown Wilmington from the West Bank of the Cape Fear River and the Battleship Tuesday, May 10, 2022 in Wilmington, North Carolina

The deal was that if the nonprofit could raise $16 million by the end of the year, the land would be theirs. Otherwise, the land would be directed to development. That deadline is still in effect, Harris said. He declined to say how much the group had raised so far.

This week, over two days, the Land and Water Fund Board reviewed the Eagles Island land purchase along with 87 other proposed acquisitions. Ahead of the meeting, Harris called the project “highly competitive” as it was ranked second out of 88 projects based on criteria including importance and public interest. The rank did not take into account the cost of the land.

Unique Places to Save requested $12.2 million in public funds – a figure significantly higher than all but one of the other funding requests. Behind Eagles Island, the second highest request was a $4.6 million request for a project along the Lumber River in Robeson County.

The project’s total price of $22.4 million — more than $273,000 an acre — has raised eyebrows at least a few board members.

“I’m not comfortable with anything approaching that valuation,” board chairman John Wilson said.

Other board members echoed their concern about the property assessment approval. Board member Jason Walser called the valuation “fuzzy math” but he pushed to fund the purchase on Eagles Island, saying the board might regret denying it.

“I just think it’s dangerous for us to turn this project down because we think it’s expensive,” Walser said. “This is territory we need to turn away from.”

The west bank of the Cape Fear River.

Harris said he was “dispirited” by the time spent on the value of the land. The Land and Water Fund has an assessment process that funded projects must follow to protect the fund from overspending.

The board also expressed concern that the nonprofit was relying too heavily on the fund. There was no letter of support from local government included in the nonprofit’s funding application, but the council had been told there was verbal support among leaders for buying the land. .

Others worried that the plans for the project were not fully fleshed out. Nonprofit leaders said they plan to build on ideas put forward by the Eagles Island Central Park Task Force, a vision that includes nature and paddle trails, boardwalks, a park and an educational center, and public input, but they haven’t published more. details for their desired goals on the 82 acres.

At one point, the board proposed to allocate $4.7 million to the project – a figure the board approved as the funding cap for projects in this grant cycle. They also considered putting conditions on the funding to require the nonprofit to find local government partners.

In the end, the board voted 5 to 3 not to fund the purchase of the land on Eagles Island.

The board’s decision raises the fundraising stakes for Unique Places to Save as it continues to approach donors.

“The big question mark was what land and water are going to do,” Clark said. “Now that we know the situation, we are confident that we can move forward with all of these conversations.”

Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]

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