As the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority plans how airport property could be developed in the next 25 years, some Triangle hikers and bikers are looking for alternatives to keep hundreds of acres untouched.
More than 3,800 people had signed an online petition, as of Friday, asking the airport authority to preserve 611 acres of forested land and recreational trails between Lake Crabtree County Park and William B. Umstead State Park during its 18-month master planning process, called Vision 2040.
This area includes a 149-acre tract adjacent to Interstate 40 that is already home to miles of hiking and biking trails. Wake County leases the property as part of Lake Crabtree County Park, but it could one day become an office park with luxury hotels.
“This plan slates several naturally forested areas for commercial development, and this development would result in the destruction of irreplaceable, centrally located forested recreation areas and trails,” the petition says.
Many who signed the petition are members of two area nonprofits – Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and The Umstead Coalition – who hope to one day use this property for more than 50 miles of trails with supporting commercial uses, such as bike shops, restaurants and hotels.
“There’s nothing like this in the state. There’s nothing exactly like this in the Southeast,” said Jean Spooner, chair of The Umstead Coalition. “It could truly be a destination.”
The petition stemmed from RDU’s seventh public workshop in June, where airport authority staff presented four conceptual layouts for the airport’s core, as well as a separate land use concept for the rest of the property.
The authority must create the plan according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, but airport spokesman Andrew Sawyer said that doesn’t mean all of the property will be built out anytime soon.
“While we would like to find a solution that is a win-win, aviation interests have to come first,” Sawyer said.
According to the airport’s land use concept plan, parts of the 600 acres could one day be developed with a variety of commercial and industrial uses, including a quarry, office park, parking or aviation support. This property is not anticipated to be needed for core airport operations, like runways or terminals, in the next 25 years.
Some of this land is currently not open for recreation, like the land north of I-40, although some hikers and bikers are using it, Sawyer said.
“We’re seeing that there is some miseducation on what is our land and what is public land,” he said. “We really just want to educate our community that there are parcels of our land that are just not to be used for recreational purposes.”
RDU’s airport authority is required to adhere to many FAA obligations to receive federal funding and must get FAA approval to develop or lease property, particularly if it is to allow a use that is not essential to airport operations.
“We are first and foremost in the airport business, and our region is growing and we need to be able to support the aviation needs of our community,” Sawyer said.
These obligations also limit the airport’s ability to gift or lease property.
For example, Sawyer said FAA guidelines have become more stringent since the authority first leased property to Wake County for Lake Crabtree County Park in the mid-1980s and 1990s. He said he is not confident that this kind of lease would be allowed today because “the FAA really wants you to get fair market value for any type of land you lease.”
The airport doesn’t plan to develop the main 33-acre part of the park by the lake, where the boat ramps, play areas and picnic spots are located, because it is in a 100-year floodplain.
However, the 149-acre parcel north of the park area could someday be needed for supporting airport uses, like hotels, and the airport’s lease with the county allows it to reclaim that land south of Interstate 40 for airport use with 45 days notice.
An alternate solution
While RDU considers the future needs of the airport, members of Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and The Umstead Coalition are looking for an alternative that could appease hikers and cyclists while adhering to FAA guidelines.
The two groups are championing a solution that uses the 600 acres for an Urban Trails Center with more than 50 miles of varying levels of trails.
Surrounding the trails, commercial development could cater to outdoor enthusiasts. This could include bike shops, campgrounds, restaurants, bars, recreation outfitters and hotels, where small conferences could be held.
Spooner expects these commercial uses would generate revenue for the airport.
“We think we can have all the partners win here,” she said.
The two nonprofits will hold a rally at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Rally Point Sport Grill at 837 Bass Pro Lane in Cary to discuss their efforts.
“We just really want to make sure that the public and our own members and everybody knows that we need to be supportive with RDUAA and find a way to work with them,” said David Houskeeper, TORC’s president. “We are not really out there to make a war with them and fight with them.”
The airport authority will host its next workshop in early October. Airport staff plan to present a single concept to the public based on feedback and complete the final master plan by this winter.
This meeting originally was scheduled for early September, but airport officials decided to extend the process to have more time to refine the plans based on feedback. People interested in RDU’s 25-year vision can continue to submit comments online at bit.ly/2bIrppy.
“We slowed down the process just a little bit because we’ve get one shot to do this right,” Sawyer said.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon