EMERALD ISLE – Town commissioners plan to hear from the public again before deciding on the next step for McLean-Spell Park. The 30-acre, sound-side maritime forest is the largest undeveloped track in town.
Mayor Jason Holland said Tuesday during the meeting, which was held in-person and streamed live on Facebook, that while the board was to hear proposed park plans that night, it would not be taking action. He added that there would be another meeting regarding the park in December or later with a public hearing before the board votes.
McLean-Spell Park, which has existing walking trails, is named after the town’s two founding families and is bordered by homes, a town park, the police and fire stations, a community center, Archers Creek — a tributary of Bogue Sound — and surrounding wetlands, according to town documents. The town purchased the property in 2018 for $3.1 million before a developer could move forward with a proposed 230-plus condominium development. The land had been zoned for multifamily development but has since been restricted to pedestrian traffic only.
“Acquisition of McLean Spell Park is a major accomplishment for the entirety of Emerald Isle. It helps to preserve a large segment of maritime forest, allow for public usage of the land, and protect the dark sky compliance for local military training operations,” Town Manager Matt Zapp told Coastal Review on Wednesday. Some of the funding to purchase the property was through the Department of the Defense, under the condition a restrictive easement was placed over the entire property to avoid development or uses that would be incompatible with Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point and its outlying facilities.
Zapp recommended during the meeting Tuesday a two-phased approach for the park to both meet the needs of the residents and conserve the undeveloped land. The two phases were detailed in a master plan report, which Zapp presented to the board and public for the first time.
Phase one would include an arborist report, trail maintenance, exercise stations, a dog park for small and large dogs, a water fountain, and a picnic shelter. Phase two is to mostly take place outside of the McLean-Spell Park boundary, and would include updating the nearby Blue Heron Park restroom facility and adding an educational deck and pickleball courts, according to the town.
The $3.1 million property provided the town with the ability to maintain the undeveloped land, as opposed to seeing over 300 potential dwelling units built there, Zapp said. “So, one major victory has already been accomplished.”
The constant theme is keeping the park natural, preserving the maritime forest and focusing on green spaces, he added.
The project was paid for with $1.5 million from the Department of Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program, $500,000 from North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, $545,000 from the Clean Water Management Trust, a $600,000 contribution and a 10-year installment loan from Truist Bank, the town manager explained.
The town contracted with the Wilmington-based Summit Design & Engineering this spring to develop a master plan for the park, which Zapp presented to commissioners Tuesday. The engineering firm worked with the town to ask the public what they wanted in a park, and collected socioeconomic information to ensure the community was accurately represented.
Zapp said Tuesday that more than 1,200 people joined in the conversation about what they’d like to see at McLean-Spell Park through a survey, two virtual meetings and an in-person meeting over the summer. Zapp first presented the results of the survey during the town’s August meeting.
“I’ve been in this business for nearly 20 years, and this is quite possibly some of the highest density results I’ve ever seen of a town-driven study,” he said Tuesday.
Zapp said many responses had keywords, such as dog parks, picnic areas, pickleball courts and exercise areas.
“When asked for general comments about the future development of McLean-Spell Park, a significant number of respondents stated that they would like to ‘keep the area natural,’ ‘preserve as many trees as possible,’ ‘keep it green,’ etc.,” the master plan states.
Zapp stressed that the town’s administrative staff, elected officials and constituents would also like to see the area be kept a natural preservation of the maritime forest.
“The whole idea of ‘nice matters,’ but green matters. So, keeping it green for all of us,” he said.
“Nice Matters” is the town motto.
“We wanted to focus on a strong support of keeping mature trees, a strong support for active walking trails, the cleanliness of them, the safety of them, the meandering of those trails, and maintaining the shady forest at McLean Spell Park,” he said.
The focus led to the “first and most prudent step” in the master plan: to have a certified arborist assess the trees in the park for safety before any work begins.
Zapp reiterated the plans do not call for removing trees. The arborist would be brought on to help the town with any issues such as hanging branches, or trees with diseases that could cause concern.
He said bringing in the arborist is a best management practice to ensure the park is safe for use and the cost should be minimal.
“The next step for our parks team would be to begin engaging in that conversation (with an arborist) if any type of a plan to move forward was approved,” he said.
The public input also included the recommendation of trail updates that would entail maintaining the existing trails along its same meandering path to make them safer and adding exercise stations that would blend into the environment, a picnic shelter, and a water fountain.
Also part of phase one is the recommendation for a dog park. The proposed dog park would be about an acre. Zapp said the land would not be cleared, just fenced off, allowing for the pets to play within the existing mature trees.
The engineering firm’s stormwater team reviewed any potential impacts from the dog park. Based on past experiences, Zapp said they found people clean up after their pets and the risk of contamination isn’t extremely high.
Zapp explained that the dog park project had been in the queue for a few years.
“There was a goal of nearly $52,000 to be raised for the dog park and we have met that goal and a portion of that was raised from private citizens and then the match with the town.” At this point, he said the town has more than $50,000 allocated and dedicated to the placement of a dog park somewhere in Emerald Isle.
“I’d like to stress we can do everything in phase one. We can afford to reach phase one today,” he said.
Recommendations for phase two, which Zapp said is a little bit farther out of reach from a financial perspective, would include updating existing bathrooms serving Blue Heron Park across Archers Creek from McLean-Spell Park, and the community playground, and build a naturally designed outdoor classroom.
Zapp told Coastal Review Wednesday in a follow-up that recent conversations regarding limited development of the 30-acres is exciting and the proposed enhanced public trails and exercise stations help Emerald Isle meet its obligation to the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant process. Optional improvements include a dog park, pavilion, and even outdoor classroom space.
“It is rewarding that 1,238 individuals shared their opinions and perspectives on the park system. The Town is working toward those wonderful goals,” he said.