Southport hasn’t put out a “For Sale” sign, but that has not deterred offers for a large tract of city-owned land.
The 441-acre tract has captured the attention of a private business and a state agency, which are eyeing the land for very different reasons.
Commercial construction firm The Polote Corp. has approached the city with a proposal to buy or lease no less than about 50 acres of the land near Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, or MOTSU.
The Savannah, Georgia-based business wants to do on the land what it did 15 years ago – mine clay-like material and transport it next door to build up earthen berms buffering ammunition and explosive areas within the ammunition port. The berms have naturally eroded over time.
Circling back around from talks with city staff in 2020, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recently informed Southport’s planning and zoning board the agency received funding late last year to help purchase the property.
An Oct. 10 letter from a commission official to the board indicates the commission wants to continue with a funding plan if Southport is still interested in selling, “with the hope of protecting the property’s significant conservation value in perpetuity.”
Polote Corp. Senior Vice President Lloyd Ludlow explained during the Southport Board of Aldermen’s Oct. 13 meeting that the land’s proximity to the Army installation makes it particularly desirable. The next closest areas that contain material suitable for berm-building are a little more than 40 miles away.
“That would mean that the transport of this very, very large amount of dirt through very heavy trucks and other machinery,” would occur on Southport’s roadways, said Ray DiGuiseppe, a Southport-based attorney representing The Polote Corp.
Polote would not need to access public roads to move earth mined from the city’s land to the ammunition port, Ludlow said.
The firm could also mine the land to provide material for Boiling Spring Lakes’ dam restoration project, one that entails repairing a series of dams in the town that were damaged during Hurricane Florence in 2018. Boiling Spring Lakes is a city about 9 miles northwest of Southport.
Polote would need about 50 acres to mine an estimated 800,000 cubic yards needed for MOTSU’s five-phase, five-year project, Ludlow said.
The acreage the company will need may not be contiguous, depending on exactly where the suitable material is and the fact that the city’s property contains a population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Ludlow said Polote would mark trees with woodpecker nests to ensure those trees would not be cut down and mine only the best soil, digging down to a depth of no more than 10 to 15 feet. Mined areas would be turned into lakes.
“It’s not like strip mining,” he said at the Oct. 13 meeting. “We’re not going after rock or anything else. We’re just looking for that soil and that’s it.”
Ludlow said how much land Polote would either buy or lease remains “very negotiable.”
“We know what we need,” he said. “We do not need all of it. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Polote is offering $4,000 per acre. If the city were to agree to lease the land with exclusive rights to Polote, the company would negotiate price per cubic yard.
The federal government has placed restrictive uses on the land because of its proximity to MOTSU, the nation’s largest ammunition port spanning more than 16,000 acres off the banks of the Cape Fear River.
Development of the property is prohibited.
Ben Solomon, assistant chief and land acquisition manager of the Wildlife Resources Commission’s Land and Water Access Division, said in an email the land, which is adjacent to the state’s Green Swamp Game Land, serves as an important buffer and includes a host of habitat benefits.
“MOTSU contains a population of red-cockaded woodpecker and is habitat for up to 90 species of amphibians and reptiles, 44 of which are state listed and/or Wildlife Action Plan priority species,” he said.
In December 2021, the commission was awarded a $441,000 grant to purchase the land.
“The final funding goal has not yet been determined and will be evaluated once an appraisal is ordered,” Solomon said.
He said the agency and city have not discussed the sale of at least some portion of the tract and that the commission is considering how it wants to proceed with negotiations with the city.
The city has to retain at least 20 acres of the tract as a site to place yard debris following storms, Southport City Clerk Dorothy Dutton said.
During its Oct. 20 meeting, the Southport Planning and Zoning Board approved a recommendation to allow Polote access to the property to conduct research and tests on the land. The recommendation has to be signed off by the city manager.
The city has hired an interim city manager set to begin the job Tuesday.
Sunny Point’s eroded berms will be replenished over the course of five years.
The multi-million-dollar project is scheduled to get underway next year and is anticipated to be completed by 2028, according to Jed Cayton, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District.
The initial phase of the project requires about 33,500 cubic yards of material, he said in an email responding to questions.
Natural erosion has reduced the berms to various heights, Cayton said.
The berms will be restored in compliance with the Department of Defense’s explosive safety regulation, which requires that the entire width of a berm’s crest be at least one foot above the line of sight.