Reprinted from the Tideland News
SWANSBORO — After more than eight years of legal wrangling and negotiation, the state is ready to acquire almost 300 acres to add to Hammocks Beach State Park.
The N.C. Council of State Tuesday unanimously approved money that will be used towards the purchase, and a closing date of April 26 has been set.
When asked for his reaction 30 minutes after the vote, David Pearson was nearly speechless. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” said Pearson, the president of Friends of the Hammocks and Bear Island, the Swansboro park’s volunteer support group. “I can’t really even describe it. It’s obviously a very emotional day, one we’ve worked for a long time, and everyone involved is excited.”
The Council of State approved spending $6.96 million for the purchase of 199.37 acres. The Conservation Fund, through its North Carolina chapter office, has committed $3.1 million to buy the remaining 90 or so acres, said Bill Holman, the fund’s state director.
The fund is expected to work with the state parks system over the next couple of years to allow the state to buy the fund’s land, according to Holman. In the meantime, the 90 will be preserved.
Holman was as excited as Pearson about the vote, which had been delayed last month because of a technicality. “I think this will transform Hammocks Beach State Park and provide the public a lot more year-round use and new activities,” he said. “There is really no other piece of land like this one in the area.”
Holman, a former secretary of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a former executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, said he had been going to the park since he was a teen-ager. He used to love camping on Bear Island, the undeveloped barrier island component of the park, Holman said.
The acquisition of the mainland property, some of it along Queens Creek, means that eventually there should be camping opportunities at the park for folks who are not up to the rigors of camping on the island, which is accessible only by boat.
Sam Bland, who now works for the N.C. Coastal Federation and has a deep emotional attachment to the park, has been dreaming of this acquisition since at least 1988, when he was superintendent of park.
“I started putting it on our list for land acquisition that year, I think,” he said. “Sometimes when we had some money, the owners weren’t willing to sell, and sometimes when owners might have been willing, we didn’t have any money.”
The idea all along was to make the park more of a year-round destination, Bland said.
“Especially way back then, when all we had was three acres and Bear Island, people would drive up in the off-season, when the ferry to Bear Island wasn’t running, and there really wasn’t anything for them to do,” he said. “It’s better now, with 30 acres and the visitors’ center, but this will make a tremendous difference. This is a great piece of land, with its own unique ecological qualities.
After the state legally takes ownership of the land, work will begin on updating the park’s master plan, Pearson explained, that will describe how the new land will be used. He said he doesn’t know if the state Department of Parks and Recreation will do that in-house or contract it out, but he and Holman stressed the public will be involved. The update also will deal with Jones and Huggins islands, which were added to the park after the last update in 1991.
Holman noted that whatever is done will require money; the park’s friends group no doubt will try to come up with private donations, and Holman noted the state’s Parks and Recreational Trust Fund has money not only for property acquisition, but also for park development.
The fund, in fact, is contributing about $3.9 million to the purchase. The rest of the money, about $3 million, is included in the state’s 2014 budget.
Hammocks Beach State Park is currently made up of four different areas: the 30-acre mainland, which is the hub and home of the visitors’ center and ferry dock; Bear Island, an 892-acre largely unspoiled barrier island with a ferry landing, an ocean beach with lifeguards and a restroom and concession facility; Huggins Island, a 225-acre maritime island, home to a historic Civil War battery, at the mouth of the White Oak River in Bogue Inlet; and about half of 23-acre Jones Island, just up the White Oak River from Swansboro.
The new acquisition represents about a 25 percent increase in the total size of the park and close to a 1,000 percent increase in the mainland area.
Pearson said the planning process would be a key to the future. “It’s going to be very important for the community to get involved, to tell us what they would like to see happen,” he said. “That’s who all this has been done for: the public.”