City talking with conservation group on Duke Beltline

May. 15, 2014 @ 08:43 PM

A Virginia-based conservation group may try to help city officials acquire the Duke Beltline from the Norfolk Southern Corp., City Manager Tom Bonfield says.

Discussions with The Conservation Fund began in February, spurred by the realization that groups like it are often “in position to move faster” on complex land deals than the public sector is, he said.

The initial feelers were about “seeing if we would be interested in having them assist us,” Bonfield said. “I told them I definitely was.”

The Duke Beltline is a disused rail spur that rings the western and northern edges of downtown. City officials and local open-space advocates consider it a prime candidate for a “rails-to-trails” project like the one that produced the American Tobacco Trail.

But while the city has a $2 million federal budget earmark available to pay for an acquisition, Norfolk Southern executives said last year they want $7.1 million for the property.

City leaders have shown little interest to date in tapping local revenue for the extra $5.1 million, in part because they figure on using most of their available capital funding to build the Durham Police Department a new headquarters.

A briefing paper on the fiscal 2014-15 budget that’s reached City Council members indicates the headquarters project will eventually consume about 82 percent of the $66.9 million in “general” funding earmarked for capital projects next year.

The Conservation Fund is a national group, but it has a North Carolina branch headed by Bill Holman, a former Sierra Club lobbyist, state administrator and Duke University policy analyst.

When he worked for the state, Holman headed the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and eventually the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Like other conservation trusts, the fund buys property that’s of interest to environmental or preservation interests, controlling its future use via easement or an outright transfer to governmental control.

The fund’s projects have included work in Pennsylvania to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield and the 9/11 crash site of United Flight 93. Its 2012 tax filing reported the group raised $179.3 million, spent $137.6 million and ended the year with $468.9 million in net assets.

“They have very deep pockets,” Bonfield said.

Holman couldn’t be reached for comment, but another Durham official, City Councilman Steve Schewel, confirmed having discussed the matter with the group.

“They are in the exploration stages, but are definitely interested,” Schewel said, adding that he’d met with Holman and other Conservation Fund staffers a couple months ago.

Bonfield said the group has “a lot more expertise” than the city staff on the matter of how to value railroad corridors and has signaled it will “do some legwork” on the valuation of the Beltline compared to other places in the state.

It may then seek meetings with Norfolk Southern to “get their arms around what the number can or should be,” he said.

“Depending on how that plays out, they may be in a position of helping with the acquisition and holding it until such time as public participation can be worked out,” Bonfield said. “That keeps the number from moving further away from us.”

But the fund’s involvement wouldn’t let the city off the hook financially.

“Ultimately, they would not acquire the property without come concurrence from the city, some acknowledgement that we agree and we had some plan of action to ultimately acquire it from them,” Bonfield said.

Schewel noted that The Conservation Fund has more typically worked in rural areas. But “they have told me and they have expressed as a general philosophy that they’re interested in helping preserve urban lands now, because that’s where people are living.”

“They would be a great ally and a great asset if they were to become very involved,” he added.