Nearly seven years after Beaufort County acquired land around Crystal Lake, efforts to convert the Lady's Island property into a haven for bird watching and other recreational uses are gaining ground.
Volunteers affiliated with the group Friends of Crystal Lake have spent hundreds of hours during the past year clearing brush and removing invasive species, such as the Chinese tallow tree.
The 26-acre site is off Lady's Island Drive between Carolyn Drive and Rue Du Bois.
The county now seeks bids for a 660-foot-long boardwalk leading to the water that also will feature a large pier. The cost won't be known until bids are opened April 25.
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If all goes well, the boardwalk and the new park could open in six to nine months, said Friends co-chair Peggy Allard.
That's a major milestone for a project first envisioned in the 1990s. "All the stars have aligned, so to speak," said her husband, Joe Allard.
The Allards are among 10 people leading the Friends group, which formed in late 2011 to bring the park to fruition.
The county's planning staff also has devoted many hours to the project, helping to secure permits and complete plans for the site, planning director Anthony Criscitello says. They also meet twice a month with the Friends group. He says the partnership is "working out beautifully."
"Keeping people energized is a task in and of itself, but when you try and do that, you have to make sure you are demonstrating real progress," he said. "We have, I think."
The property consists of a 7-acre lake that's more brackish than the name suggests, 4 acres of wetlands and 15 acres of upland. It also includes a vacant building once occupied by Butler Marine. The site is home to migratory-bird rookeries, alligators, otters and numerous other species. Bald eagles also have been spotted there.
The Stewart Family Trust donated the lake to Beaufort County in 2006 to be converted into a park. Since then, the county bought the remaining acreage around the lake using $3.2 million in Rural and Critical Lands money.
Councilman Brian Flewelling, chairman of the county Natural Resources Committee, says groups focusing on Crystal Lake and Fort Fremont could offer a template for opening other county lands.
"The county can't afford to staff every single park for a standard shift. We don't have those resources," he said. "But we do have lots of land."
The Allards say their group is close to receiving nonprofit status, which will make it eligible for many grants and other funds. Meanwhile, it's planning a count of flora and fauna on the property.
Longer term, it hopes to convert the vacant building into a nature center and meeting space. Another boardwalk around the perimeter of the lake also is planned.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.