Wake County

Wake to study possibility of park center on RDU land

Wake County took its first major step Monday toward a partnership with Raleigh-Durham International Airport to potentially create an urban trails center that area hikers and bikers have been clamoring for.

The board of commissioners directed staff to begin a study to determine the feasibility of an urban trails center – a system of trails with supporting businesses such as shops, restaurants or hotels – between Lake Crabtree County Park and William B. Umstead State Park.

The study, which will be conducted with the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative, will cost just under $70,000 and will determine whether a project like that would make money, and if so, how much land would be needed to make it possible.

Staff will return to the board at a later meeting to seek approval to formally enter into the contract, County Manager Jim Hartmann said.

“It is definitely novel, and therefore, it’s something I think is worth exploring,” Hartmann said. “But it’s a very high-level, concept stage at this point in time. I think (the study) will help us find a next level for this project.”

Groups like the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and the Umstead Coalition have supported the idea of preserving more than 600 acres of land between two of the county’s most popular parks for a trails center. Most of the land in question is owned by the airport, and Wake County likely would have to lease property at fair-market value to make the center possible.

The idea for the urban trails center came to light during the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority’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.

The plan identifies two areas for future recreational uses – a 149-acre tract adjacent to Interstate 40 that is already home to miles of hiking and biking trails and a section north of I-40 that abuts William B. Umstead State Park.

But local hikers and cyclists have expressed frustration with the plan, because it shows these forested areas also could be developed with a hotel or office park or used for support activities for aviation.

Developing airport land could potentially 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.

Michael Landguth, RDU president and CEO, has said if the useful life of that runway were to end before a new one is constructed, it would bring the airport down to only one commercial service runway – one that isn’t long enough to accommodate transatlantic or transcontinental service.

“We’ve got real issues coming forward in terms of how we pay for the infrastructure,” Landguth told commissioners Monday. “But we’ve challenged the community. We’ve said if you’ve got a better idea come to the table with it.”

A potential quarry that is shown on the airport’s master plan as a possible use has been a point of contention among some outdoor enthusiasts, and several commissioners, including Commissioners Chairman Sig Hutchinson, brought it up Monday.

Hutchinson expressed an interest in including the area earmarked for a quarry in the trails center study. Landguth said RDU officials would like to find uses that have community support but that also meet the financial needs of the airport.

“At the end of the day, we are going to try to figure out how to get the highest return on that property,” Landguth said.

Commissioners are hopeful that a compromise could be struck.

“I think there’s just got to be a way to have these interests co-align,” Vice-Chairman Matt Calabria said.

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon