The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority has received two offers to lease 105 acres of airport land near Umstead State Park: one from a conservation group that wants to preserve the land, and another from a stone company that wants to dig it up.
Wake Stone Corp. already operates a quarry next to the airport’s property, just south of William B. Umstead State Park, and proposes opening a new stone quarry on airport land that would operate for 25 to 30 years. The company says after the quarry shuts down, the property could be used for recreation, including hiking and fishing.
Meanwhile, The Conservation Fund, a national environmental organization, says the offer it made this summer to buy the 105 acres for $6.46 million still stands. But this week it also proposed to lease the property or to lease/purchase it over five years for $6.8 million.
“We thought it was important that the RDU board have conservation alternatives to consider for the property as they evaluate leasing it to Wake Stone or others for a quarry,” Bill Holman, The Conservation Fund’s state director, wrote in an email.
Airport authority chairman Farad Ali turned down The Conservation Fund’s offer to buy the property in a letter on Sept. 8, the same day the airport put it and two other tracts near Umstead totaling 151 acres up for lease. Wake County has proposed leasing the other two tracts for use by hikers and mountain bikers in an effort to expand on nearby Lake Crabtree Park that the county maintains on land it leases from the airport.
The airport authority met Thursday to give the county, The Conservation Fund and Wake Stone a chance to make their cases for leasing airport property in public. Afterward, Raleigh-Durham International Airport president and CEO Michael Landguth said his staff will review the proposals and make recommendations to the authority, but said he could not say how long that would take.
The meeting drew dozens of people who support the idea of preserving the airport land for recreation. A coalition of groups and individuals called RDU Forest is collecting signatures in support of a plan to expand hiking and off-road cycling on airport land and in a portion of Umstead park nearest the airport. The plan depends on The Conservation Fund gaining control of the 105 acres known as the Odd Fellows property and Wake County securing a long-term lease on the remaining 151 acres the airport has made available for lease.
Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, told authority members that this was a chance to create a “recreational wonderland” in the middle of a growing region.
“This is not only our opportunity, this is our destiny, our legacy,” he said.
The three pieces of airport land were once considered necessary for a planned runway that never materialized, and now RDU is looking for ways to generate income from them for other projects. Wake made the only lease offer for the 151 acres. It has proposed leasing the property for 40 years – the maximum the airport is willing to offer – at a rate that would be based on an appraisal that hasn’t been done yet.
But RDU now has two suitors for the Odd Fellows property.
Wake Stone has long had its eye on the property to complement its existing quarry, which opened in 1982. Landguth said shortly after he came to RDU six years ago, Wake Stone approached him about buying the Odd Fellows property. He told the company that the airport had a long-standing policy against selling property, and the conversation turned to a possible lease. Landguth said after hearing from others about wanting the property for recreation, the airport decided to make a public request for lease proposals.
The airport authority has already endorsed the idea of putting a quarry on the Odd Fellows property. A master plan for airport development over the next 25 years that the authority approved last fall designates the land for “industrial/quarry.”
Sam Bratton, president of Wake Stone, told authority members Thursday that the quarry lease would generate more income for the airport than the sale to The Conservation Fund and noted that the company has been good neighbors wherever it operates.
“Umstead has thrived while we’ve been in operation right next door,” Bratton said.
When a park is not a park
The airport authority sought the guidance of Peter Kirsch, an attorney who specializes in legal issues facing airports, who explained Federal Aviation Administration rules and policies on the sale or lease of airport land. He spent several minutes Thursday explaining why parks are considered incompatible neighbors with airports and that airport administrators should not create parks on adjoining land.
“Because parks are protected,” Kirsch said. “And if you later create an impact on that park, you’ve violated federal law.”
Wake County commissioner Irv Portman later asked how the airport could have signed a lease with the county to create Lake Crabtree Park. Kirsch replied that there’s language in the lease that makes it clear that the property is a recreation area and not a park as the FAA would understand it.
“So there are legal ways to do this,” Portman said, referring to the county’s lease offer.
“Recreational uses created by airports are quite common,” Kirsch said.
Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, noted that RDU has been neighbors with Umstead State Park since the airport was created in 1939.
“We have a huge precedent here for recreational use being compatible with the airport,” Jacobs said.
At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, authority member Dickie Thompson offered to excuse himself from the lease discussions if his fellow board members wanted. Thompson noted that he had received $4,000 in contributions to his recent campaign for re-election to the Raleigh City Council from four executives of Wake Stone Corp., including Sam Bratton and his brothers John and Theodore. Thompson’s campaign recorded the checks on Sept. 9, the day after the airport announced that it was making the Odd Fellows property available for lease.
On Wednesday, Kym Hunter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, asked that Thompson not take part in any decisions related to leases for the airport land because of those checks.
“These donations seriously undermine Mr. Thompson’s ability to consider the future use of the Odd Fellows tract in an impartial manner,” Hunter wrote on behalf of The Umstead Coalition.
Thompson told his colleagues that he’s not influenced by campaign contributions and that he has known the Bratton family for decades. The same four Wake Stone executives also supported Thompson’s first campaign for the Raleigh City Council in 2015, when each wrote checks totaling $500, according to state Board of Elections records.
Thompson also noted that the two Wake commissioners, Hutchinson and Portman, also donated to his campaign, as had Jean Spooner, head of the Umstead Coalition. In the end, no one on the airport authority asked Thompson to step aside.