Rally at Umstead park shows that the RDU quarry will be a political issue this fall

Opponents of a planned quarry on 105 acres of airport land next to Umstead State Park are hoping that a lawsuit filed in Wake County will stop the project.

But they’ve also waged a public relations campaign against the quarry. And with local elections coming up this fall, that effort is becoming more political.

On Saturday, quarry opponents held a rally at the park, urging people to elect candidates in Raleigh who will work to stop the project.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport is owned by Raleigh, Durham and Wake and Durham counties, which each appoint two members to the airport authority, its governing board. In March, the authority approved a lease with Wake Stone Corp. that will let the company quarry stone from the 105-acre parcel for as long as 35 years.

Opponents say the four local governments should have more say about the lease, but so far none of them have moved to intervene. A proposal in the Raleigh City Council asking the authority to reconsider the lease failed when only four of the eight council members voted for it.

All four of those council members — David Cox, Kay Crowder, Stef Mendell and Russ Stephenson — attended Saturday’s rally, along with two council candidates, Sam Hershey in District A and April Parker in District D.

“October 8 is just around the corner,” Crowder told the crowd of about 300, referring to Election Day in Raleigh. “And it’s really, really important to remember those who stand in front of you looking for your support and looking for that fifth vote that we don’t have today.”

Opponents say the lease is a bad deal both for the airport and the community. RDU says it stands to receive $24 million over the life of the lease, mostly in the form of royalty payments for stone removed from the site. Wake Stone would also pay $3.6 million toward the lease of 151 acres of airport property that Wake County wants to make available for off-road cyclists and has also pledged about $3 million to make the quarry site available for public recreation when the mining is done.

The airport could have gotten $6.4 million in one lump sum from The Conservation Fund, which offered to buy the property and make it available to Umstead State Park. Airport officials rejected that offer, saying they weren’t interested in selling the property, but that’s essentially what they’ve done with the mineral lease to Wake Stone, said Mendell.

“If you’ve ever leased a car, when you return a leased car you can’t return it without the seats or the steering wheel or the tires,” Mendell told the crowd Saturday. “I’m sorry, when you lease land and dig a big hole and take all the dirt and stuff away, you’re not returning the same thing.”

Both Crowder and Mendell criticized the RDU authority for developing the quarry lease in private. Mendell recalled asking airport officials about the potential for a quarry when she visited RDU for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in January.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry about it, nothing’s happening,’” she said. “And then about a month later, all of a sudden they called a meeting with 48 hours notice and they voted to lease the land to Wake Stone.”

Though the Raleigh council has appointed two members to the airport authority, including outgoing council member Dickie Thompson, Cox said the council had been shut out of decision-making at RDU.

“We want to be able to open the door and be able to go in and have an adult conversation about the future of the airport and the future of Umstead State Park,” Cox said.

Saturday’s rally, which spilled out of a picnic shelter near the North Harrison Avenue entrance to the park, was organized by The Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, or TORC. It drew a mix of cyclists, environmentalists and fans of the park.

“I have been coming to Umstead my whole life,” said Ayla Gizlice, who grew up in Raleigh and recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s really something special to me.”

The rally was followed Saturday evening by a premiere of a documentary “400 Feet Down: Misguided Authority and the Fight to #StopRDUQuarry” at JC Raulston Arboretum.

For its part, the RDU Airport Authority issued a statement before the rally. It said much of the information put out by opponents of the quarry up to now has been “inaccurate and misleading,” though it did not elaborate.

The statement continued: “RDU continues to comply with all state and federal laws while pursuing creative ways to raise nearly $4 billion for critical infrastructure identified in our Vision 2040 master plan, such as a new runway, more gates and better amenities.”

And on Tuesday, three days after the rally, Wake Stone president Sam Bratton issued a statement highlighting the company’s relationship with the park and its proposal to make the airport property available for biking and hiking trails after the mining work is done.

“Wake Stone Corporation has a 38-year history of operating right next door to Umstead State Park with a stellar record — not one single permit violation,” Bratton said. “As neighbors and outdoor enthusiasts serving on the Umstead State Park Advisory Committee for more than 20 years, Wake Stone has been and will continue to be good neighbors to the Park.”

Bratton said the company’s proposed trail center is similar to the goals expressed by opponents of the quarry, though it wouldn’t happen for 25 years or more.

“Retired quarries around the world provide vast recreational opportunities and have served as an inspiration for the proposed Triangle Trail Center,” Bratton said. “We look forward to working together with stakeholders during the permitting process to find common ground so that we can make this vision a reality.”

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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.