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Carolina Beach Mayor asks county leaders for $3 million to help purchase Freeman Park

The town is also looking for outside sources to help pay for the park
Published: Feb. 18, 2022 at 11:58 AM EST
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CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - When the Town of Carolina Beach announced it would be moving forward with the purchase of more than 300 acres at the north end of the island, known as Freeman Park, Town Council members assured residents they would be using user fees from the park to pay for the $7 million purchase.

Now, it seems the Town is also looking for outside sources to help pay for the park.

Mayor Lynn Barbee sent a letter to New Hanover County Commissioners asking them for $3 million to help buy the property, which has been tied up in several lawsuits for years now.

“Terms have now been agreed upon which will allow the Town to forever preserve 300 acres of open space. The Town respectfully requests that the County participate in saving this unique property in a financially significant manner by granting the Town the sum of Three Million Dollars to be used exclusively towards the purchase of the properties,” Barbee wrote to commissioners.

The Town has made millions of dollars over the past several years from Freeman Park in the form of access passes to drivers wanting to hit the beach. It’s one of the few places in southeastern North Carolina where vehicles are permitted on the beach.

Barbee told WECT it’s not the only source of funding the town is looking for.

“There are multiple possible options and we are exploring them at the moment to determine the best path forward,” he said.

Why should the county help?

Because of its remoteness and difficulty to access, questions arise as to why the county should spend this amount of money on a park that is so exclusive to people with 4x4 vehicles, and enough money to pay for a daily or annual pass.

That raises the question: Why should the county help purchase the land?

Barbee addresses that in his letter to an extent.

“First, the opportunity to participate in saving 300 acres of property for open space is not likely to come again in New Hanover County. This park will be the largest in New Hanover County and certainly the most unique,” he wrote.

Preserving the space in the county is not the only reason Barbee is asking for the support, he says that the majority of the visitors are not actually Carolina Beach residents.

“The overwhelming majority of users of Freeman Park reside in New Hanover County, not in Carolina Beach. County residents who do not live in Carolina Beach accounted for 69%, 71%, and 74% of the users for the last three years, with Carolina Beach residents accounting for only 11%, 11% and 13%,” he said.

That being said, New Hanover County has a population of 225,702 people as of 2020, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

With an average of 15,439 visitors for for the last three years, around 11,424 of the visitors would have been New Hanover residents or just over 5% of the county’s population.

If the county were to help purchase the land, it’s not clear if the town would lower rates or provide access roads for people without 4x4 vehicles to use the property.

“Operation of the park may very well be altered depending on the funding sources. It is too soon the tell. For example, many of the grants come with limitations on use,” he said.

Then there’s the aspect of the lawsuits the Town has faced related to beach nourishment issues. The Town uses sand from the inlet to provide new sand on the beach strand, but, landowners at Freeman Park were not happy about this and took legal action against the Town.

“With the property owned by the Town, never again will an issue arise related to the casements necessary for the nourishment activities and sand placement from dredging activities conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers which could reduce future costs associated with the renourishment project for Carolina Beach and will allow for the beneficial placement on Freeman Park,” Barbee said.

It’s not clear if the Town would be able to place sand on the beach at Freeman Park since federal funding is generally used to do nourishment projects. As far as the state is concerned, there are no prohibitions to nourishing undeveloped beaches like Freeman Park.

“The state doesn’t have any requirements for there to be development present for the authorization [of] beach nourishment. Typically we see nourishment on undeveloped beaches as a result of placement of material from navigation dredging, but we could also authorize a project for habitat restoration as well along undeveloped beaches,” said Christy Simmons with the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

At the end of the day, Barbee says it’s all about preserving the land for future use and enjoyment.

“Our main goal is to preserve 319 acres of pristine coastal environment for low impact use by the public, 74% of which are New Hanover County residents. We invite our partners at the county, state and federal level with similar interests to join us in this endeavor,” Barbee said.

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