Cyclists, hikers, joggers and geocachers who traverse the twisting trails at Lake Crabtree County Park are concerned that their favorite haven could take a turn for the worse.
The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority has begun to consider developing some of the 1,600 acres it owns that it will likely never need for aviation purposes, including one of two parcels Wake County leases for Lake Crabtree County Park, the most-visited park in its system.
The authority has said it has no plans to develop the original 33-acre tract where the lakefront park’s boat docks, ramps, fishing piers, office, and picnic and play areas are located. But its board is looking at a report it got last month from a nonprofit consulting group, the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, that says the adjoining 149-acre tract, added in 1994, that includes the park’s multi-use trails would make a nice site for offices or a hotel.
While the authority considers its options, it declined to renew the five-year lease, set to expire Dec. 31, that Wake County had on the larger of the two tracts that make up the park. This week, the authority agreed to a one-year lease that automatically will renew each year through 2025 unless either party gives 45 days’ notice. The Wake County Board of Commissioners were expected to approve the shorter lease, to begin Oct. 24, at its regular meeting Monday.
“It’s really important to point out that it’s too early to tell” what the authority might do with any of its land outside the perimeter of the airport, said Mindy Hamlin, spokeswoman for the Airport Authority. “It could be years before anything takes place there, if it ever does.”
But trail fans, some of whom use the park three or four times a week, have gathered 1,700 signatures at a website called savethecrab.org to try to push the board to take all the land used by the park out of consideration and to concentrate instead on other parcels, if any. The Airport Authority owns a total of about 4,900 acres, including the land on which the airport itself sits.
Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, the group that does most of the work creating and maintaining the trails at the park, says it likely will return a state grant of about $71,000 it has been awarded for improvements and repairs if the yearlong lease is approved.
The lapse of the lease illustrates evolution in both the airline industry, where constricting profits have airports looking for new revenue, and in Wake County’s demand for open space, much of which is provided through lease agreements on land that is not for sale or too expensive to buy.
Revenue vs. open space
Wake County has a goal of preserving 30 percent of its land area as parks and open space. But five of the county’s eight parks are on land that is leased at little or no cost, with nothing to keep the owners from evicting the county with adequate notice.
“I’d like to think that the people we work with entered into these agreements for a reason. They thought parks were a good thing at the time,” said Chris Snow, director of Wake County’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space.
The county took out a 40-year lease on the first 33 acres for Lake Crabtree County Park, off Aviation Parkway in Morrisville, in 1985.
In 1994, the Airport Authority and the county amended the lease to add the adjoining 149 acres, which lie between the first 33 acres and the on-ramp to eastbound Interstate 40.
Room for bike roamers
When the county leased the 149-acre section, mountain biking was a relatively new sport to the region. Riders wanted a place where they could build trails that would give a taste of the challenges their bikes are designed to take: changes in elevation; sharp turns; roots, rocks and gravel; natural slope that drains water so the trails dry out after rain.
Lake Crabtree proved nearly ideal: It’s centrally located and part of a larger network of green space that includes neighboring Umstead State Park and the Black Creek Greenway into Cary.
“The topography we have at Lake Crabtree is not stunning, but it’s good enough for the beginner and intermediate bikers that it serves,” said Matt Jenkins, president of Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, the mountain-biking group. Members have donated thousands of hours of labor and have raised money to match grants the group has secured for improvements.
The park has 9 miles of serpentine trails that an experienced rider on a $10,000 bike can cover in less than an hour. One evening last week, dozens of people were on the trails between 5 p.m. and sunset.
Four years ago, the cyclist group got a grant of nearly $56,000 from the Federal Highway Trust Fund’s Recreational Trails Program and contributed more than $6,000 plus labor to repair and improve trails on the eastern end of the property.
If Wake County were to lose the lease on the 149-acre tract, Jenkins and others say, mountain bikers would likely spend more time at other sites where they’re allowed to ride, such as Umstead State Park, Beaverdam State Recreation area on Falls Lake, Harris Lake County Park in New Hill, and Legend Park in Clayton.
In its report to the Airport Authority, the Urban Land Institute indicates that a new tenant such as an office park would view the trails as an amenity and might try to keep some of them for public use.
“Development and the trails might be able to coexist,” said Hamlin, the authority’s spokeswoman.
“I can’t see that,” said Drew Cabe, who manages Lake Crabtree County Park for 290,000 visitors a year, at least a third of whom, he says, ride, run or walk the trails. “Who wants to be right up against office buildings and fences?”