Hikers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts continue to push for an expansive system of trails and supporting businesses on Raleigh-Durham International Airport land and have officially branded their vision “RDU Forest.”
Supporters want more than 600 acres between Lake Crabtree County Park and William B. Umstead State Park to one day feel more like a resort, with brew pubs, outdoor stores, bike rentals, rope courses, zip lines and places to hold small meetings or conventions, as well as more than 50 miles of trails.
“All of that adds up to some level of leasable revenue for the airport, and it would give the Triangle the ability to preserve that green space and have that kind of destination there,” said Chaz Felix, a Raleigh resident and member of Triangle Off-Road Cyclists. TORC and The Umstead Coalition are two of the main nonprofits behind the RDU Forest effort.
Felix was one of about 100 people who attended a meeting Thursday to support or learn more about the urban trails center concept. More than 7,000 supporters have signed an online petition asking the airport authority to preserve forested land and existing recreational trails to be used for the project.
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The idea for the urban trails center came in response to RDU’s 25-year master planning process. The master plan, which the airport authority approved in October, lays out potential development of the airport’s core and surrounding land, including a potential hotel or office park, quarry and parking on the land the activists are eying for RDU Forest.
“This is an opportunity to better understand the current proposal for a quarry and parking right up to Umstead State Park and Crabtree Creek and share with them our alternative vision that we think should be seriously considered,” said Jean Spooner, chair of The Umstead Coalition.
Thursday’s meeting comes at a time when Wake County is studying the feasibility of an urban trails center on the land. The study is expected to determine whether the project would make money, and if so, how much land would be needed.
Most of the land is owned by the airport, and Wake likely would have to lease property at fair-market value to make the center possible. The RDU airport authority is required to adhere to Federal Aviation Administration 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.
Spooner said once the outcome of the study is released, the RDU Forest working group will submit an updated plan to the airport.
There already are miles of hiking and biking trails at Lake Crabtree County Park, as well as trails on adjacent land along Old Reedy Creek Road. But RDU officials said Thursday that the land along Old Reedy Creek Road is not public and is lined with “No Trespassing” signs.
Felix said the RDU Forest group is not advocating for people to use the land along Old Reedy Creek Road, but it still has the potential to one day be a part of the urban trails center.
“The bones are there,” he said.
Of all the elements in the RDU master plan, supporters of the trail project said they are most concerned about the potential quarry that is listed as a possible use for land south of Umstead State Park.
“We feel that a new quarry pit on the most sensitive piece of property next to Crabtree Creek takes away our options,” Spooner said.
Developing airport land could help pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses RDU expects to face in the coming years as it replaces runways and taxiways, builds a consolidated rental car facility and makes other improvements. Airport officials expect to have to rebuild the longest runway in the next three to five years.
“We have flexibility when it comes to the land-use component as long as it meets the acceptable criteria for airport land use,” RDU spokesman Andrew Sawyer said. “Nothing is set in stone yet. Our priority right now is really, really laser-focused on that runway project.”
Morrisville Mayor Mark Stohlman, an 18-year trail user, was involved in a previous effort to preserve the trails at Lake Crabtree County Park called “Save the Crab.” Now he supports the effort to preserve even more land for expanded trails but said he was disappointed with the outcome of the airport’s master planning process.
“There’s a tremendous disconnect between the public input and the result we received from RDU, but I am still hopeful that they will work toward a compromise,” he said. “To me, the answer is there. It’s just a matter of the fortitude of the RDU authority board to recognize it, to kind of buy into it and start promoting it and developing it.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon