County talks controlled burns

Published 8:37 pm Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The parcel of land known as the VOA property is slated for a series of controlled burns over the next few months.

In partnership with the county, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has taken on maintenance of 1,600 acres of the 2,800-acre property, largely to create a protected habitat for the Henslow’s sparrow. The corner of northwestern Beaufort County is one of the sparrow’s few habitats on the east coast. At Monday night’s Beaufort County Board of Commissioners meeting, Wildlife Resources petitioned for commissioners’ approval in conducting a series of controlled throughout the area, in order to maintain the sparrow’s habitat. The first burn, comprising 1/3 of the acreage, would take place before March 15, according to county Economic Development Director Martyn Johnson.

At the Board’s February meeting, commissioners voted to take constructive possession of the property — a surplus property in the possession of the federal government. Constructive possession means the county takes on responsibility for the property and its maintenance, though the deed has not yet been transferred.

The county has been wrangling with National Parks Service and General Service Administration for several months, trying to get permission to put a solar farm on approximately 200 acres of the property, in an attempt to make the property pay for itself in the short term. In the long term, NPS has agreed to the property’s use for lumber harvesting as a way to finance the land’s maintenance. Commissioners have had ongoing discussions with NPS representatives and North Carolina legislators during trips to Washington, D.C., in an effort to work out an agreement or, barring that, creating legislation that would enable the county to move forward with a solar farm.

According to Johnson, a solar farm at the site would bring in between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.

A budget provided by former County Manager Randell Woodruff set one-time expenses to clean up the property, including removing towers, utility poles, various repairs and institution of a park plan at a cost of $555,000. Yearly expenses were estimated at over $200,000, a cost that also included full-time employees to oversee park operations. A long-term plan for the property call for a county park, potentially including a lake, camping and hiking, biking and ATV trails.

Notice will be given of when the March controlled burn by Wildlife Resources will take place. More burns are planned for mid-July and into the fall.