CEDAR POINT — In the culmination of a year-long process, town officials closed Thursday on the $2.8 million purchase of 56 acres of land from the N.C. Masons for a park along the White Oak River off Masonic Avenue.
The purchase includes all the remaining undeveloped Masonic property except for the historic Octagon House and its grounds, which will remain in private hands but continue to be available for town special events.
It was a historic day for the nearly 31-year-old town, according to Town Administrator Chris Seaberg, as the land will become the town’s first park and will be protected from development that could have added pollution to the long-troubled river.
“We’re excited,” Mr. Seaberg said. “We’re ready to get in there and get the (heavily wooded) land cleaned up and open as soon as possible to the public.”
Many trees were downed on the land by Hurricane Florence in September, and officials say there are also dangling limbs. So for now, the town has posted a no trespassing sign, which has drawn some social media criticism.
“We’re going to get it cleaned up and safe as fast as we can,” Mr. Seaberg said Wednesday, the day before the closing. “We know people want to get in there and look around, but we have to make sure it’s safe first.
“We need to hire a contractor; it’s just too much for us to do. We’ve estimated it might cost $20,000. I’m hoping it will be lower, but we are still working on the process to hire someone.”
But until the town closed on the purchase there was very little that could be done.
“If we get a good crew with enough people, I’d say that once they start, it might take two weeks or so to make it safe, depending on the equipment,” the administrator added. “The problem is that the companies that do this kind of work have been very busy since the hurricane and are still very busy. We want to get our work done as soon as possible, but we realize that our project is no more important than anyone else’s.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Seaberg is urging town residents and visitors not to disobey the no trespassing sign.
He knows some, particularly young people, have already been on the land. There’s a gate up, but it doesn’t stop pedestrians.
“We just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said.
It’s particularly dangerous at night because there are no lights.
Meanwhile, the town is working to hire a consulting firm, probably The Wooten Co. of Raleigh, to help develop a plan for the park in conjunction with input from residents, town commissioners and planning board members.
“We hope to have something (a proposed contract for town commissioners to consider) soon,” Mr. Seaberg said.
Almost all of the property is under a conservation easement, so there won’t be much development, probably just a bathroom facility, some open shelters for picnics and a kayak launch on the water.
Mayor Scott Hatsell has stressed the intent is to leave the land as natural as possible, with only hiking trails through the woods to the water, plus the kayak launch and a rebuilt existing dock for fishing and water/nature observation.
The goal, he’s said, has always been not just to have a park, but also to keep the land from being developed – it was zoned for residential units – and to help preserve or even improve water quality in the river by limiting stormwater runoff from hard surfaces like roads, parking lots and sidewalks.
Town residents in November voted 523-240 to approve a $2.5 million bond sale for the purchase and the town had previously committed $300,000 in taxpayer money to make up the difference between the bond sale and the $2.8 million sale price.
Commissioners voted April 24, 2018, to schedule the bond referendum, so the closing came exactly one day after the one-year anniversary of that vote.
Mayor Hatsell, while proud the historic purchase came during his mayoral watch, said he doesn’t view it as his legacy.
Rather, he said, “I view it as the town’s and the citizens’ legacy, because we made them (residents) partners in this” by asking for their approval of the expenditure before the town started the process to buy the land.
It was “incredible, not just rare” in this day and age for voters to approve an expenditure they knew would, at least in the short term, raise their property tax rate from 6.25 cents in 2018-19 to 9.25 cents per $100 of assessed value in 2019-20, beginning Monday, July 1, Mayor Hatsell said.
But the mayor also noted the town has already received one grant – $250,000 from the N.C. Coastal Land Trust – and used the money as a down payment, lowering the total bond sale to $2.25 million.
In addition, officials hope to receive grants of $1 million and $500,000, respectively, from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, to help pay for the land.
The fate of those applications won’t be known until fall, long after the 2019-20 budget takes effect.
So the grants could not be used to reduce the tax rate increase for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
The board of commissioners in March OK’d a resolution to approve a $2.25 million loan from Sterling National Bank of New York.
Sterling will buy $2.25 million in general obligation bonds, and the town will pay the bank back over no more than 20 years, with quarterly payments of $180,000. The interest rate is not to exceed 3.45 percent.
Mayor Hatsell, like Mr. Seaberg, said he’s aware residents want to get on the property “and see what they voted for.”
But he added, echoing the administrator, the town has to first make the property safe.
“People thought that when they voted for the bonds, the property was ours, but that really just started the process,” he said. “I understand that, but until today, when we closed, it wasn’t ours and there wasn’t much we could do.
“Now that it really is ours, we’re going to work as hard as we can to get it to a point as fast as possible where people can get out there,” he said.
The ultimate goal, the mayor noted, is to make the park as nice as possible for residents and visitors, while keeping it as natural as possible.
“Everything is changing all around us, all this development everywhere,” he said. “As everything gets built up, this will be a kind of sanctuary for people.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.