Council discusses options for public walkway in Moss East

Published 10:26 pm Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Washington City Council discussed Thursday several different options for extending the Washington boardwalk toward the Moss East development, which is essentially the second phase of the Moss Landing development.

The existing boardwalk begins on the downtown Washington waterfront and ends behind Moss Landing, where it extends slightly outward over the Pamlico River before returning to land and ending at Water Street.

During a City Council meeting earlier this month, Councilwomen Virginia Finnerty and Betsy Kane expressed their concerns about the lack of a public boardwalk in the plans for Moss East, which is located just east of the Water and McNair Streets intersection, on the 6.75-acre property formerly occupied by Builders FirstSource. Both of them spoke in favor of extending the existing boardwalk to Havens Gardens, but the Moss East developer said that idea wasn’t feasible.

In a virtual work session Thursday, City Manager Jonathan Russell introduced two potential options: extend the boardwalk eastward over the river, in the direction of Havens Gardens; or connect the boardwalk to a sidewalk or road network heading eastward from within the new neighborhood.

“I’m confident that you could, at a minimum, require a walkway of some type throughout the entire development, that’s not gated or locked and that the public would have access to,” City Attorney Franz Holscher told the Council.

Current plans for Moss East show an open area along the development’s waterline. As of the regular meeting earlier this month, the developer didn’t know whether that area would be a private boardwalk or a grassy area leading to river access points and boat slips.

“I also believe that you could require any pier boardwalk or other walkway to be accessible by and open to the public,” Holscher said. “The developer may not be open to that last sentence, and there are a lot of ways to get to the end result of potentially a boardwalk open to the public.”

Russell said the developer is “very hesitant” to allow public access to the proposed Moss East boardwalk area, but they are open to discussing potentially selling an access easement to the city to construct a boardwalk, which Russell said could cost the city between $500,000 and $2 million for the purchase alone.

Holscher said there’d be more steps needed to determine that price.

“The code provides that the purchase price for that easement — what you would get is an option,” Holscher said. “They would be required to give you an option on that property. The consideration that would be payed if you exercised that option is the agreed upon raw land value. … If they purchased the property for $3 million, I think it would very hard to say that that strip of land would be worth $2 million.”

The city has talked with the developer about several potential ways of promoting public access, such as giving the city ownership of the Water Street extension, which is expected to be a central part of the new development.

“That would ensure that it would remain a public street in perpetuity,” Russell said. “There has been some discussion about offering a public space for a viewing platform on the eastern edge, eastern boundary of the property.”

“A project for all of Washington”

Finnerty delivered a prepared statement during Thursday’s meeting, again expressing her support for the potential boardwalk extension and calling it a “project for all of Washington.”

“Considering how successful Moss Landing has been, I was honestly very surprised when I found that a continuation of the boardwalk was not part of this future project,” Finnerty said. “It would be a unique feature that would attract more homebuyers and tourists, bringing revenue to the city, allowing it to pay for itself in a matter of a few years.”

Finnerty added that a boardwalk extension was a long-term goal she had discussed with Washington’s late mayor, Mac Hodges. Kane backed Finnerty’s statement. Kane also spoke about the idea of putting a public park within the open green spaces near the Moss East waterfront.

“Section 34 of our subdivision ordinance clearly predicates new subdivisions on the provision of public open space,” Kane said. “… That the city may require (public parks), may take an option on them. So we’re talking about when a subdivision is developed, in that subdivision process, if a park is to be had, that’s when it takes place.”

“… I’m looking at a plan right now that has three green spaces on it,” Kane added. “There’s a conceptual idea that the viewing platform would be accessible to the public.  I am completely opposed to the idea of a private waterfront park in the heart of our downtown neighborhoods.”

Beacon Street Development President Jim Wiley said Moss East was planned with the city’s goal long-term goal of adding eastward travel routes in mind. He noted that the property was always fenced off and inaccessible to the public when occupied by Builders FirstSource.

“We’re able to do that at no expense to the taxpayer,” Wiley said. “Meaning we’re building these sidewalks, we’re building these streets.

“I think the proposed boardwalk — certainly well-intentioned, I have no question of that — it is a significant change and impact in value to the homes that would be here,” Wiley added.

Wiley said many of the planned houses in Moss East are close to the water, and a potential boardwalk would need to be located on the waterline — as close as 12 to 15 feet away from the homes.

“It is most definitely a financial impact to the value of that,” Wiley said, “particularly when you have a right-of-way on one side of the house and then what is normally enjoyed as the second side of the house, or something else, has the public on it as well.

“Our calculations and analysis (show) that’s an impact in the neighborhood of $2 million on the property, in addition to — not that this is the most important thing right now, but it would drive lower value for the whole property and tax base, and things of that nature.”

Wiley said the city must act quickly if it wants to pursue the boardwalk extension even with those factors in mind, adding that the developer can’t feasibly pause the project for negotiations.

No items were voted on during the work session. The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 8.