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Pender County authorizes new plan for Abbey Nature Preserve, Rocky Point land purchase

 A shot of a two lane country road running through Pender County. The road is bordered by pine trees on either side.
Vince Winkel
The Pender County Board of Commissioners met on July 10 to discuss the future of public access to Abbey Nature Preserve.

The July 10 commission meeting wrapped up a year's worth of discussion on Abbey Nature Preserve's future

After a period of uncertainty, Abbey Nature Preserve has finally found a way forward. On July 10, the Pender County Commission approved a lease amendment creating a new, permanent park to the east of Abbey Nature Preserve. Funded by Tennessee-based developer Mungo Homes, the park will allow public access to the neighboring historic grounds.

The new plan

The decision follows nearly a year of debate over the future of Abbey Nature Preserve. Last July, Mungo Homes bought 242 acres of land off Scotts Hill Road. The $16-million purchase included Abbey Nature Preserve and the public access trails leading to it.

Mungo Homes quickly agreed to lease the cherished park, which is protected by a conservation easement from the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, to Pender County (for a nominal fee of $5 a year). But concern mounted over the trails leading to the park. The Foy family, founders of Pender County and the former owners of the park, sought out a conservation easement of Abbey Nature Preserve in 2007. That easement protected the preserve itself from being developed into homes — but it did not protect the public access trails leading to the preserve.

The new plan, which the board of commissioners unanimously approved, is to construct a 5.3-acre park on the other side of Abbey Nature Preserve for permanent public access. Mungo Homes has agreed to donate the land to the county as well as clear, grade, and install construction utilities at no cost. The county has no official construction plan in place yet, but Pender County staff attorney Patrick Buffkin touted potential features like a 64-car parking lot, a playground, public restrooms and other amenities.

“To be perfectly frank, Mungo Homes could have developed the entire property, and being the owner of the conservation property, they could have converted that property to a private amenity. And access to the general public would have been lost forever,” he said during the meeting. “We feel like we’ve gotten a better result because of the work we’re doing here.”

Saving Scotts Hill

The lease amendment also got an endorsement from Save Scotts Hill, a community organization advocating for the conservation of Abbey Nature Preserve and surrounding lands. During the meeting, co-founder Jennifer Mackenzie thanked county commissioners for consulting with the group in advance of the vote. On June 30, officials met with representatives of Save Scotts Hill for what she described as a “frank” discussion.

“I left that meeting with the hope and the assurance that the open dialogues would continue and feeling that this new park configuration represented more success than our community group might have thought possible at the beginning of this year. So, here's to continuing those talks toward a more sustainable future with some green spaces left for us,” said Mackenzie.

Save Scotts Hill members also used the public comment time to emphasize their other concerns. Mungo Homes plans to clear cut about 65 acres of their land to make way for 137 houses. Locals worry that will eliminate biodiversity and exacerbate flooding in the area.

Mungo Homes plans to break ground on constructing the new park in late 2024 or early 2025 in hopes of completing it in 2025 or 2026. In the meantime, the developer and the county are working to establish temporary access to Abbey Nature Preserve on the new tract of land, as Mungo Homes plans to clear the old trails this fall.

Other updates

During the July 10 meeting, county commissioners also voted 3-1 to authorize the $1.5 million purchase of 55 acres off Union Chapel Road. The land will be used to expand Rocky Point Elementary, as well as construct a $17-million bus maintenance garage and a $21-million central services office.

The purchase, funded by a $178-million bond project, plays a key role in Pender County’s battle against overcrowding in schools. Last January, Pender County Schools reported a 90% building capacity with 10,988 students. During a referendum in November 2022, Pender County residents also voted to build a new elementary school and a new middle school. County officials estimate the combined K-8 building will cost $111 million and create room for two thousand more students.

County commissioners also got an update on the Hurricane Florence Hazard Mitigation Grant Program from Steven McGugan of the North Carolina Emergency Management office. In order to ameliorate future natural disasters, FEMA is buying back lots where homes damaged by Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Dorian once stood. FEMA is also funding the elevation of select homes threatened by future hurricanes and tropical storms.

During his presentation, McGugan said the buyback program for Hurricane Florence is scheduled for completion in December 2023. Of the 81 currently enrolled in the program, FEMA has made final offers to 23 homeowners. The nine homes slated for Hurricane Florence's elevation program will be completed in April 2024, with the three homes enrolled in Hurricane Dorian elevation program slated for completion in May 2024. The buyback program for the nine Pender County homes impacted by Hurricane Dorian remains pending.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.