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RDU board approves plan to quarry stone on airport land

This conceptual plan shows how two Wake Stone quarries adjacent to Umstead State Park might be redeveloped as recreational land after mining is completed. Wake Stone is proposing to lease 105 acres from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to develop the mine on the left.
This conceptual plan shows how two Wake Stone quarries adjacent to Umstead State Park might be redeveloped as recreational land after mining is completed. Wake Stone is proposing to lease 105 acres from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to develop the mine on the left. Wake Stone Corp.

The board that runs Raleigh-Durham International Airport voted Friday to make 105 acres of airport land available for a quarry over the objections of people who think it should be used for recreation instead.

Members of the Airport Authority asked no questions and made no comments before voting without dissent to approve the lease with Wake Stone Corp. at a special meeting Friday morning. The room was filled with people holding signs that read “Stop RDU Quarry” and “Save RDU Forest.”

The only person who spoke to the lease during the meeting was Jim Tatum, an attorney for the airport, who described the terms. He said royalties from the quarry over the 25-year lease would generate $20 million to $25 million for the airport.

“This proposed lease would provide the highest and best commercial use of the property, yielding funds to support the airport, a valid use of airport property,” Tatum said.

Opponents question whether the RDU board can lease airport property for a quarry without explicit approval from the Federal Aviation Administration or the four local governments who appoint members to the Airport Authority: Raleigh, Wake County and the city and county of Durham.

Outdoor enthusiasts are pushing for a system of more than 50 miles of trails and related businesses between Lake Crabtree County Park and William B. Instead State Park. The land is owned by Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Here Dave Anderson

Jean Spooner, head of the Umstead Coalition, says opponents’ first step in trying to stop development of the quarry is to persuade those four governments that they can vote to prevent a lease under FAA rules for using land for non-aeronautical purposes.

“We believe we stand on solid legal ground,” Spooner said. “And once each local government realizes that the FAA is saying that that is the process, we’re confident that they will exercise their right to take a vote.”

RDU made 256 acres of forested land near Umstead State Park available for lease in 2017. The airport had acquired the land in the 1970s for a planned runway that was never built.

In late 2017, the authority agreed to lease 151 acres to Wake County for use by hikers and cyclists. Wake Stone made a bid for the Odd Fellows property, as did The Conservation Fund, a national environmental organization that offered to buy the property and eventually turn it over to Umstead.

With competing visions for the Odd Fellows property, the airport authority decided in October 2017 not to accept either offer.

Since then, Wake Stone has been talking to opponents of the quarry, in hopes of crafting a plan everyone could support, said its president, Sam Bratton. As part of the agreement with RDU, the company offered $3.6 million toward the county’s lease of the 151 acres and pledged to build parking, hiking trails and overlooks on the Odd Fellows property when the quarry operation shuts down.

“We took into consideration what their concerns were and came up with what we believe is a compromise that would allow for near-term recreational benefits for these folks and then a long-term vision that we believe will enhance the park and make for a greater recreational destination with the use of the quarry property,” Bratton said in an interview after the vote.

The company’s proposal has not won over conservation and recreational groups. They have pushed a plan they call RDU Forest that envisions hiking and biking trails on all 256 acres of airport property that lies between Umstead and Lake Crabtree County Park.

“A new quarry pit is incompatible with the surrounding recreational assets,” Triangle Off-Road Cyclists wrote in a statement. “It would create a long-term liability for the region.”

Bratton said his company needs several permits before it can begin to develop the quarry on airport property, including a mining permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Even if that process goes smoothly, it would be more than a year before mining can begin, he said.

Bratton said the demand for crushed stone in Wake County for roads, buildings and parking lots is about 10 million tons a year, most of which comes from eight existing quarries in the county. He said the region will benefit from expanding Wake Stone’s operation near Umstead.

“There aren’t going to be any more quarries, new operations, started in Wake County,” he said. “It’s really a finite resource, and we’ve got infinite growth potential in the region.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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