Belmont buys land as addition to its first public park along Catawba River

After more than three years of research, Belmont City Attorney Parks Wilson has identified the owner of a trash-filled no-man’s-land the city wanted for its first public park along the Catawba River.

The quest reached back 100 years, to a time before the creation of Lake Wylie.

Navigating old, handwritten deeds sprinkled with obscure survey references about rocks and bushes, Wilson began a journey into the evolution of property along the Catawba.

Land granted by the king of England was submerged under the waters of Lake Wylie more than century later – only to rise again as people dumped debris from demolished buildings at the spot.

“I learned more than I ever wanted to know about this,” Wilson said. “I’ve been an attorney for 35 years, and this is probably the most challenging title I’ve ever searched.”

The parcel of land in question lies south of Wilkinson Boulevard at the U.S. 74 bridge. It is a small peninsula of land jutting out from the riverfront and adjoins land that city officials are going to develop for a riverfront park.

Records didn’t show the parcel was part of land purchased by the adjoining property owner. But Wilson eventually determined that the adjoining owner had superior claim to the property.

Belmont recently paid $55,000 for the 1.4-acre peninsula. The city has already spent $15,000 on enhancements, including a gate, lights, trash cans and a gravel road. The area will be open to boaters daily from 5 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.

For decades, the peninsula has been a constant eyesore because of litter, and its official status was murky. Gaston County Tax Director Jimmy Tanner said the company that did the county’s tax mapping in 1962 didn’t map the river parcel.

Located just outside the Belmont city limits and not included on county tax books, the land was known for decades as a popular spot for squatters, boaters and others, many of whom left behind trash.

Although Belmont officials had no jurisdiction there, they tried to solve the litter problem by putting out trash cans. But people who hung out on the peninsula used the receptacles for another purpose.

“They’d light trash in the barrels and use them for campfires,” said Belmont Public Works Director David Isenhour. “People set up camps there, and we couldn’t run them off because we had no authority, and they knew it.”

Volunteers with Keep Belmont Beautiful pitched in, sometimes gathering dump-truck loads of trash, but the area never stayed clean for long.

Serious efforts to find the owner began as the city formalized plans for the riverfront park, which adjoins the no-man’s land. City officials felt the peninsula would add value.

“It’s a big amenity because the spot has direct access to the main channel of the lake,” said City Manager Barry Webb. “On property the city already has for the park you couldn’t get a motor boat in because the water’s not deep enough.”

Bids for the new park, which will cover about 8 acres in addition to the peninsula, will be taken in the next few months, Webb said. Named for former Belmont Mayor Kevin Loftin, who was killed in a 2012 car crash, the park will “look like a beautiful nature preserve,” said Parks & Recreation Director Sallie Stevenson.

Along with trails, picnic shelters and amphitheater with 200 seats facing the river, it will have a playground “that won’t look like any other in Gaston County,” she said. “It will be a natural type, not hard metal and bright colors. Colors will be natural.”

Plans for the park went on hold when the economy slowed, but a $450,000 matching state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant is moving the project forward.

Calling the new park “a gem for the town,” Stevenson said, “it will be the gateway to Gaston County. Folks from Mecklenburg will come across the U.S. 74 bridge and take the first left, and go right to the park.”

She feels the newly acquired parcel is a valuable addition.

But getting it wasn’t easy.

Although the riverfront land was plainly there, “it wasn’t authenticated,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t recognized or taxable.”

To unravel the mystery, he spoke with officials at Duke Energy and other potential owners while researching deeds that he described as “often messy.”

Wilson found that before the creation of Lake Wylie in 1904, the McAden family had owned a 75-acre tract in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties and that it included the parcel in question.

He then explored a branch of that family and then identified other owners during the 1930s.

Meanwhile, there was another complicating factor: The land had gone underwater and, over time, was built up by man-made deposits of brick and other debris.

Solving the riddle of land that officially didn’t exist was frustrating.

“It was a long, drawn-out process,” Wilson said. “It was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.”

In the end, after the deed work and a survey, “we made a decision we feel we can support,” Wilson said.

Despite frustrations, he said, “we believe patience and persistence have paid off and that the citizens will be able to enjoy a nice addition to the riverfront park.”