Under a state Senate proposal for swaps of public land worth more than $100 million, Umstead State Park would annex Wake County’s park and bike trails at Lake Crabtree – while the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority would take title to prime state acreage in West Raleigh.
The exchange involving 720 acres was inserted last week in Senate Bill 486, a package of proposals to expand hiking and bike trails across the state.
Besides redrawing the woodland boundary lines between Umstead and RDU, the measure would give the airport 84 acres now used by several state agencies along the north side of Wade Avenue and the west side of Blue Ridge Road.
Residential and commercial developers consider this to be some of the most desirable property in the Triangle.
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“It’s truly the heart of the development corridor,” said Jim Anthony, CEO of the real estate firm Colliers International in Raleigh. “Builders would kill to be in that location.”
The Blue Ridge land is an attractive location for apartments or townhomes and would likely draw interest from office and hotel developers. The recent success of homebuilder Lennar’s Inside Wade residential project on the south side of Wade Avenue has only increased the area’s appeal.
Jeff Warren, an aide to Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican Senate leader, approached Mike Landguth, the airport CEO, in January to discuss the possible land exchange. According to documents provided by RDU, Warren valued the Blue Ridge parcels at $250,000 to $300,000 an acre – or $24.5 million in all.
Anthony said $300,000 is likely on the low end of what developers would be willing to pay.
“I think the numbers start at $300,000 and go up to as high as potentially $1 million an acre for developed lots,” Anthony said. “There’s a lot of upside to that dirt.”
RDU free to sell land
The airport authority would be free to develop the Blue Ridge land – about 7 miles east of RDU – or sell it.
Raleigh developer John Kane, an RDU board member who joined Landguth in a March meeting to discuss the proposal with Warren and several senators, called the proposed swap “a potential win-win for everybody.” He referred The News & Observer to Berger’s office for further comment, “because they’re kind of running point on this.”
The legislation cleared the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on May 20, but its prospects are unclear.
Berger’s spokeswoman declined to make Warren available for comment. She cited a quip from Sen. Tom Apodaca, who noted that the trails legislation had been shunted to his Rules Committee – “the hospice of the Senate,” as Apodaca called it, “where it can receive appropriate end-of-life care.”
But Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Wake County Republican who is one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said any talk of its death is premature. She said she parked the bill in Rules because she wanted more time “to work with all the stakeholders to make the bill a really good bill.”
The legislation is drawing support from cyclists and park advocates who are concerned about the long-term survival of Wake County’s most popular park, Lake Crabtree, which is laced with bike trails. They say the Senate proposal could turn Umstead into a regional mecca for mountain bicycling.
“The goals are to have a wonderful park not just for Wake County but for the state and the region, and also have a growing and healthy airport that will serve the economics of this region,” Barringer said.
If the Senate bill becomes law and the airport board agrees:
▪ The airport authority would give up 332 acres between Interstate 40 and Lake Crabtree, land now operated as a county park under a short-term lease with RDU. In combination with 54 acres on the other side of I-40, along both sides of Old Reedy Creek Road, this land would be added to Umstead State Park. The state would receive 390 acres in all from RDU, valued by Warren at $49 million.
▪ A nearby 206-acre section of Umstead would become airport property, along with two other park parcels comprising 28 acres. In all, the airport would receive 330 acres of Umstead and other state property valued by Warren at $54 million.
▪ State park officials would be required to dedicate 500 to 600 acres at the southwest (Lake Crabtree) corner of Umstead to trails for mountain bike use. Cyclists now can ride on roads and wide gravel trails there, but Umstead – unlike the Lake Crabtree park and several other state parks – has no “single track” trails designed especially for mountain bikes.
Lake Crabtree visitors have worried about the park’s future since March 2014, when a visiting team of land development experts urged the airport board to consider developing the Lake Crabtree property with “98 acres of offices tucked into the woods.” Weighing the economic potential for this and other undeveloped tracts RDU does not need for aviation uses, one adviser said the airport should think of itself “like any other real estate player in the region.”
Landguth was noncommittal Thursday. He said the airport authority – representing RDU’s government owners, Raleigh and Durham and Wake and Durham counties – is just beginning to study what it might do with Lake Crabtree and other parcels. He said he didn’t know much about the Blue Ridge tracts.
If the Senate proposal becomes law, he said, the airport board can take whatever time it needs to consider the proposed real estate exchanges. He said these questions can be addressed as part of a long-range master planning study RDU is set to launch in June.
“That should give us an opportunity to get feedback from the public,” Landguth said. “We’ve got neighbors to the east, and we want to make sure we’re going to be good community partners with the (Umstead) park.”
Barringer said she favors the real estate trades to help the state make the best use of its property, and to help the airport while insulating the Lake Crabtree park from development pressures.
“That would always be a concern, the development of that property,” Barringer said. “I would like to see that property preserved as Lake Crabtree and as a park.”
Cary cyclist Paul Elliott, a member of cycling groups that donated money and labor to build the bike trails at the county park, said the legislation could turn Umstead and Lake Crabtree into a regional center for mountain biking.
“This bill is about trails as a driver for economic development,” Elliott said. “It’s an opportunity for Umstead State Park to appeal to a broader range of people, developing trails that are in keeping with the environmental and recreational mandates that state parks have.”
A state parks spokesman declined to comment on the Senate bill. Jean Spooner, who heads the nonprofit Umstead Coalition, the park’s advocacy group, expressed concern about some of the land the park would lose. She said state officials should not make hasty decisions about land exchanges and new bike trails at Umstead.
“A better process would be to have a master planning process and an open forum,” Spooner said.
Sig Hutchinson, a Wake County commissioner, called the Lake Crabtree park a jewel and said he did not want to see the state take over its administration.
“If Wake County can retain control of the Lake Crabtree County Park and we can expand the mountain biking facilities there to create a ride center, that would be a very good thing for Wake County,” Hutchinson said. “If this legislation can help us accomplish that, we would clearly be in support of that.”