Some Wake County officials and area hikers and bikers hope that proving the viability of a proposed urban trails center between two of the county’s most popular parks will make it easier for miles of new hiking and biking trails to take shape near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Groups like the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and the Umstead Coalition are pushing to preserve more than 600 acres of land from Lake Crabtree County Park to William B. Umstead State Park for this urban trails center – a system of more than 50 miles of trails and supporting businesses, such as shops, campgrounds, restaurants or hotels.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners plans to discuss the possibility of implementing a study to determine whether a project like that would make money, and if so, how much land would be needed to make it possible. The discussion was scheduled for Monday, but was postponed because of inclement weather.
“I am as excited about this as anything I’ve worked on in 20 years,” commissioners Chairman Sig Hutchinson said about the project.
Outdoor enthusiasts hope the study will help sell the idea for the project to RDU, which owns most of the land in question. If such a project were to move forward, Wake County likely would have to lease property at fair-market value.
“It is way premature to even consider how much land or which land,” Hutchinson said. “We have to validate whether it’s economically feasible to do it at all.”
But if the project proves viable, Hutchinson said such a study could “help us build the business case for a ride center and how we could make the numbers work.”
Future of RDU land
This move follows the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority’s approval in October of its 25-year master plan, which lays out potential development of the airport’s core and surrounding land.
The master plan identifies only two areas for future recreational uses – a 149-acre tract adjacent to Interstate 40 that is already home to miles of hiking and biking trails and a section north of I-40 that abuts William B. Umstead State Park.
Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and preservation of Umstead State Park, said she felt the airport authority focused primarily on the airport’s core, including runways, taxiways and terminals, during the master planning process.
“We feel like the non-aviation components haven’t gotten the evaluation that they truly deserve,” Spooner said. “We are hoping that this study will help pursue a more viable and in-depth analysis of the true potential of this property.”
RDU’s master plan still needs to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before the airport can act on it. Airport representatives and consultants expect to return to the public at the end of February with a financial model and implementation plan before submitting the master plan to the FAA.
The airport authority had to create the master plan according to FAA guidelines, but RDU representatives have said it could change as new conditions present themselves.
“The airport is very positive about the study that Wake County is considering,” said Kristie VanAuken, RDU’s vice president of communications and community affairs. “As long as we can meet our federal obligations, we are open to looking at an alternative from Wake County or others in the community.”
A community alternative
Supporters of the urban trails center provided the project as an alternative during the master planning process. They believe it can generate revenue, attract new businesses and promote tourism, including hosting local, regional and national races.
“We are not against development,” Spooner said. “We are about a coordinated, cohesive, visionary development and providing a community asset. We think we can find a win-win, where we have a tremendous community asset and financial revenue source.”
The trail center could tie together the 5,000-acre Umstead State Park with a 200-mile system of nearby greenways, Hutchinson said.
“It could further our brand as an outdoor recreation destination and to, ultimately, something that can look like the Boulder, Colorado, of the East Coast,” he said. “I think that’s significant.”
Hutchinson, who has been in discussions with airport officials on the future of the land, said they have been “very receptive and very responsive” to this idea, but he believed a study could further the project.
“I think in some ways, the airport hasn’t quite totally realized the potential of what we can do to increase the value of that land and increase its value sooner,” he said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon