Dozens of mountain bikers, joggers and other outdoors enthusiasts gathered in Morrisville Tuesday night to lament that the trails of Wake County’s most popular park could soon be turned into a hotel or office park.
Supporters of Lake Crabtree Park worry it could be mostly paved over within two or three years if the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority makes plans to develop more than 100 acres, home to miles of mountain biking and jogging trails. Wake County leases the land from the authority, which owns about 1,600 acres of undeveloped land near RDU.
“This is a huge disservice to the taxpayers, to be turning this into commercial property,” said David Mandel, a Cary small business owner, to loud applause.
The smaller but most popular part of the park along the lake, with picnic areas and boat ramps, hasn’t been suggested for development yet.
Airport officials said in advance they wouldn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Tommy Hunt, chairman of the airport authority board of directors, sent a letter to Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman to read to the audience.
Hunt wrote that the airport doesn’t have immediate plans for any development, but that it would explore its options more during a master planning process that starts in June.
According to a study from the Urban Land Institute commissioned a year ago by the airport, the land at Lake Crabtree Park would be well-suited for the kind of high-end business hotel that is growing in demand nationwide.
Shortly after the study came out, the airport authority changed the terms of Lake Crabtree Park’s lease where it could be canceled with 45 days notice.
Stohlman hosted Tuesday’s meeting with Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson. Stohlman said he wants to keep the park intact, but added he has had cordial discussions with RDU President Michael Landguth regarding the potential development.
“He said, ‘You guys got to get your facts straight. We own this land, and we’re in a bind with revenues,’” Stohlman said, recalling a past conversation.
Airports have suffered from a post-9/11 drop in air travel, airline bankruptcies and other factors.
“I’m a CPA,” Stohlman said. “I’m a business guy. I get it.”
But he’s also an avid mountain biker who opposes development of the park. Stohlman said Morrisville has invested $1 million in greenways that connect to Crabtree and other areas.
“Our taxpayers, our citizens, have a lot of money at stake here,” he said. “We don’t want a trail to an office park.”
Stohlman and Hutchinson joined other speakers in calling for more vocal activism.
Hutchinson said there needs to be a debate “ultimately about how the airport can win and we can win.”
Hutchinson said the park’s toughest trails are popular because the land is rough, which is good for mountain biking but bad for building a hotel. Using a map, he pointed out areas for development the crowd might not oppose in exchange for assurances that other areas wouldn’t be touched.
Hutchinson said in such a case, he would support connecting the remaining Crabtree trails with the nearby William B. Umstead State Park.
Jean Spooner, chair of the non-profit Umstead Coalition that supports the park, expressed support for that plan. She also recalled how RDU backed off plans to build a third runway several years ago in response to pressure from nearby neighborhoods and environmental groups.
“I just want to emphasize how important that is,” Spooner said. “We have seen before how we can change this.”
An airport spokeswoman said before Tuesday’s meeting that public hearings will be held during the authority’s planning process. Stohlman and Hutchinson told the crowd to take advantage of those hearings.
Stohlman said he would present the highlights of Tuesday’s meeting to the airport authority board.
“Ultimately, the board is eight people,” he said. “And they’re going to make a decision one day.
“Remember,” Stohlman added. “The president takes his orders from the board. And that’s who we have to reach out to.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran