RDU board’s lease of airport land for a quarry was legal, judge rules

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority acted legally when it approved a lease last spring that will allow a stone company to operate a quarry on 105 acres of airport land, a Wake County judge ruled Friday.

Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley II wrote that RDU’s governing board did not need to consult with the four local governments that own the airport. The cities of Raleigh and Durham, along with Wake and Durham counties, each appoint two members to the airport authority. Six members voted for the lease, with one absence and one abstention.

The lease allows the Wake Stone Corp. to operate a quarry on airport land adjacent to the company’s existing quarry and to William B. Umstead State Park. The lease is expected to generate $24 million for RDU, mostly in the form of royalty payments, and is good for 25 years with optional annual extensions of another 10 years.

Park supporters and cyclists who ride in Umstead and nearby Lake Crabtree County Park think the land would be better suited for recreation. They sued the airport authority and Wake Stone, claiming the airport needed permission from the four local governments before approving what they said amounts to a sale of airport land for a non-aeronautical purpose.

Shirley disagreed. Under the Airport Authority’s charter and state law, he wrote, it “has the statutory authority independent of the Cities of Raleigh and Durham and the Counties of Wake and Durham to enter into a lease.”

The opponents of the lease, the Umstead Coalition, Triangle Off-Road Cyclists (or TORC) and three individuals, plan to appeal, said Jean Spooner, who heads the Umstead group.

“The proposed quarry represents a real threat to the priceless asset we have in Umstead State Park,” Spooner wrote in an email to The News & Observer on Friday evening. “We believe we have a strong legal case and are optimistic we will win on appeal. We expect to continue the fight on appeal.”

John Kane, the Airport Authority’s chairman, said the board is pleased the lease has been affirmed.

“The agreement is conservatively projected to generate at least $24 million for the airport at a time when it has a nearly $2 billion funding shortfall for critical airport projects,” according to a written statement from Kane. “The revenue from the quarry expansion will help RDU keep pace with the community’s aviation demands.”

Wake Stone plans to begin seeking state mining and environmental permits by the end of the year, and that process could take several months, said Sam Bratton, the company’s president. The company would also need to build a bridge over Crabtree Creek connecting the airport land with its existing quarry off North Harrison Avenue.

The company has pledged to provide money to help turn the property into a recreation area once the mining is complete.

“We are pleased with the judge’s ruling and look forward to working with the RDU Airport Authority to generate a much-needed revenue stream and eventually a new recreational amenity for Wake County,” according to a written statement from late Friday.

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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.