A mile off the paved road, down a gravel way that splits a mature forest and meadow further than the eye can see, sits an old maintenance shed were a dozen or so folks detailed plans last week for a project that will change York County.
“I’ve seen a lot of parks,” said Fort Mill-based landscape architect Dan Dodd. “I’ve seen a lot of lands. You just know it when you see it. This is one of those.”
In December York County bought 1,900 acres of riverfront property on the Rock Hill side of the Catawba River. Project Destiny, as the county deemed it, cost $21 million. It’s former Bowater property that was later eyed for residential development by Newland Communities. Now the county foresees a natural area similar to the Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill.
A York County Council workshop on Tuesday brought Dodd and one of the top landscape architects in the country, Chuck Flink with Greenways Inc., to the site to talk about their vision.
Dodd sees three main steps to allowing public use of the property. It needs a conservation easement, he said, followed by support facilities like identified access roads, trailheads and parking. Then, it needs a developed natural surface trail network.
“With these very simple pieces, it will be a phenomenal property,” Dodd said.
The site already has about nine miles of trail from previous owners. It could support perhaps 30 miles. There is a one-lane gravel entry road now, but at almost 2,000 acres there likely would be several entrances needed.
Dodd sees a possible first phase making the entry road two lanes, adding two 40-vehicle, gravel parking lots, restrooms, electrical and emergency phone service. The first phase would have natural trails with small bridge crossings. The county also would need to figure out a funding source to maintain the site.
The preliminary master plan shown Tuesday identifies the 1,900 acres as Riverbend Park. The land, which is off Neely Store Road, has the Catawba River bending around it, creating about six miles of water frontage.
“There’s probably not a project in 10 states that’s going to look at six miles of river frontage for preservation,” Dodd said. “What it becomes? It’s a long road to the end of that story.”
The first phase would focus on parking close to the river.
“We want to get some river access immediately,” Dodd said. “It is one of the most beautiful walks you could do in probably three states, along that river. It’s amazing. You just don’t get that opportunity.”
Any decision on what the site will become has to come from York County Council. They made one call Tuesday, directing county staff to start work on a conservation easement. That process sets land aside, apart from major development, in perpetuity.
“I think this is a fantastic opportunity,” said Chairman Michael Johnson.
Nation Ford Land Trust handles many area projects to set aside land. It’s largest easement is almost 2,000 acres of the Anne Springs Close Greenway dating back to 2007. Like the greenway in Fort Mill, the York County site likely would grow to include more recreational options, venues and events.
“You can do amazing things with a little bit of money here, and you can go as quick as council would like to go,” Dodd said. “And you can go as slow as you would like to go too. The opportunity is yours.”
Flink said he believes the site will become a regional draw.
“This is such a spectacular piece of land,” he said. “It’s a tremendous investment the county just made in purchasing it.”
Flink worked in 37 states and seven foreign countries. He’s helped with several large projects with elements that remind him of this site.
He said he worked on 800 acres of river-bounded property outside Nashville, Tenn. to create a natural space park where a landfill was proposed. He worked on a North Dakota greenway after a flooded river destroyed two towns. He’s worked at the Grand Canyon and at Chimney Rock State Park, when the state took ownership there.
“Every project that I’ve been involved in, you always try to dream big,” Flink said. “It’s not that we’re going to go out and do that big dream right away, but it’s always nice to have a really big, bold plan.”
Flink met Anne Springs Close, the namesake of the Fort Mill site, in 1991 and began working with her family on that greenway. He sees similar possibilities for the York County land. Public-private partnerships and 100-year vision plans are common to projects on this scale, he said.
The plan presented Tuesday doesn’t lock the county into any development.
“It’s something that staff has felt the need to kind of identify what could take place on the property, and relay that to council,” said David Hudspeth, interim county manager.
Hudspeth said it isn’t clear exactly what forms of recreation may be included. Anne Springs Close, for instance, opened with far fewer features than it has now. Recent additions include an amphitheater and, as of last month, a new gateway entrance center. The main goal, Hudspeth said, if for York County to keep its new property natural.
“It was a purchase with the intent of conserving the property,” he said. “And I think that’s our main goal.”
Some of the man-made features could stay, too. Dodd recommends that the Castle House, greenhouse, office and maintenance shed for the greenhouse remain. Two more houses would be demolished. Anything that stays will need repair and maintenance.
There isn’t a timeline for when public access might open. Even construction of the initial trail system with restrooms and other basic features could take nine months or more. The conservation easement, permitting and other factors have to be considered too.
Councilman Robert Winkler cast the only vote against buying the property last year.
“The reason I voted against it is there was no plan,” he said. “And I felt like $20 million was a whole lot of taxpayer money to tie up with no plan.”
After Tuesday, he has taken a different view.
He said he considers the almost 1,800 acres the county has on the western side for dove hunting, fishing and other activities on the Broad River. With a plan in place, he could support a county-owned natural area on the Catawba.
“I like what I see tonight,” Winkler said. “I think it would be a great thing for the county.”
Councilwoman Allison Love supports the ongoing land project despite its considerable distance from her district — the Lake Wylie and Clover area.
“I’m glad that the county owns this,” Love said. “What a huge benefit.”
Love said she believes the county needs to put a zoning plan on a fast track, making sure property around the park site allows, or disallows, what it should to complement the project.
“What comes to the perimeter of this is very important,” Love said.
About 250 of the 1,900 acres likely wouldn’t be part of the conservation easement. The smaller portion is away from the river, somewhat cut off from the larger property. The county doesn’t have set plans for what may happen with that.
It likely will take decades to form and fulfill the vision for what the riverfront land can be. After gathering in the storage shed Tuesday, county leaders believe they have a better idea.
“A gem we’re giving to future generations,” said Councilman Britt Blackwell, “to our children and their children.”