City rejects grant for proposed park

Published 4:10 am Tuesday, February 17, 2009

By Staff
Contributing Editor
The Washington City Council has turned down a $60,000 grant for the proposed Tar River Nature Park, hoping to negotiate a better deal for the city.
The city wants to build the park on land it owns at the foot of the U.S. Highway 17 bridge across the Pamlico-Tar River.
Last week, the council unanimously voted to decline a grant agreement that would have given the state a conservation easement on 220 of the acres that are part of the proposed 275-acre park. Council members said they don’t want the 220 acres under such an easement because it would restrict what the city can do with the property.
A conservation easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement. It limits and specifies types of uses for a piece of property or prevents development from taking place on a piece of property now and in the future in an effort to protect the property’s environmental or aesthetic values.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant was awarded to the city in November 2006, based on the condition the state receive the easement. The grant essentially reimbursed the city for spending about $60,000 on a 115-acre tract that’s part of the 275 acres. The McMullan property, previously given to the city, comprises 105 acres of the proposed park acreage.
In exchange for the $60,000, the state wants something in return, Mayor Pro Tempore Doug Mercer said on Monday.
Mercer said he has no problem giving the state an easement “for a finite period of time” on the 115-acre Barger tract, which the city purchased before seeking grant funds for the proposed park.
Davis said he did not want to “tie up” that much land at the proposed park forever for only $60,000.
But according to Lisa Schell, communications director for Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the city received what it originally requested.
Although the grant agreement gave the city those concessions, including changing the reimbursement date to Sept. 15, 2010, and allowing multiple fishing piers, the city balked at providing an easement for the 220 acres in question. The easement condition was added to the agreement by Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Now that the city chose to decline the grant, which it had the right to do, it’s up to the city to inform the Clean Water Management Trust Fund about that decision, she said.
When it meets in June, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund’s Board of Directors will decide what to do with the money the city rejected, Schell said. The city is free to apply for another grant and seek different terms it deems more favorable, she said.
John Rodman, a city planner, said the city will continue to negotiate with the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in an effort to “sweeten the pot” on the proposed park. Council members believe the Clean Water Management Trust Fund will be willing to provide more than $60,000 to help develop the proposed park, he said. The council decided the city needs an appraisal of the 220 acres to determine a per-acre value of a conservation easement.
This latest grant rejection is the second time the city has refused a grant related to the proposed park.
In October 2007, the city returned a $100,000 grant that would have been spent developing the Tar River Nature Park. It decided to send the money back to the state because it expected to receive up to $400,000 for the park project during a future grant cycle. Those expectations remain in place, Rodman said.
After preliminary engineering indicated bids to build part of the park would be higher than the amount of money budgeted for those initial improvements, city officials revisited the proposal. With that grant returned to its source, the state used the $100,000 to finish other similar projects throughout the state.
The city had planned to use the $100,000 Coastal Area Management Act grant, awarded by the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, to help pay for site improvements, restrooms and storage facilities at the park. The city was to provide $30,000 in cash and in-kind contributions for the project.
Cutline for corresponding photo: Land for the proposed Tar River Nature Park includes this area on the west side of U.S. Highway 17 just past the southern foot of the U.S. 17 bridge at Washington. (WDN Photo/Paul Dunn)