Wake County commissioners want to lease undeveloped land from the Raleigh-Durham International Airport and make it available for hiking and cycling, but they say they need more time to put together an offer.
Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution Monday expressing their interest in leasing two pieces of airport property totaling about 151 acres near William B. Umstead State Park and asking the airport authority to push back the Oct. 9 deadline for lease proposals by 90 days. The authority announced Sept. 8 that it was seeking proposals to lease three pieces of property north of Interstate 40 along Old Reedy Creek Road.
One of the parcels – 105 acres known as the Odd Fellows property – is adjacent to a Wake Stone Corp. quarry. In July, The Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit group, offered $6.46 million to the airport authority to buy that parcel, with the goal of preserving the land and having it added to Umstead State Park.
In a letter, the airport authority’s chairman, Farad Ali, turned down that offer on the same day that the land was made available for lease. Ali listed several reasons for the airport’s long-standing practice not to sell property, including the need to comply with federal laws and regulations and to have space for future development.
The Conservation Fund offer still stands, says state director Bill Holman. As part of their resolution Monday, Wake County commissioners ask the airport authority to reconsider it, saying it would ensure permanent conservation of the land and provide “cash immediately” for airport projects.
Wake County already leases 181 acres of airport land for Lake Crabtree County Park, just south of Interstate 40, for $1 a year. The park is popular with mountain bikers, who have also blazed trails on airport property along Reedy Creek Road north of the interstate despite “No Trespassing” signs.
The county’s goal in leasing land north of the highway, said commissioners chairman Sig Hutchinson, is to formally expand on the off-road biking at Lake Crabtree County Park and connect the park with Umstead.
“This actually happens to be the epicenter of the recreation area for the entire region. Lake Crabtree was the most visited park in our system until the American Tobacco Trail came in,” Hutchinson said. “There is huge amounts of mountain biking in the area.”
The airport authority says it intends to seek “fair market value” for the 256 acres it has put up for lease. Wake County manager Jim Hartmann says the county needs more time to determine what that value is and will seek appraisals on the two parcels it would like to lease. But it needs the 90-day delay to get those appraisals and make a smart offer.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the county to rush to put together a proposal in a five- or six-week period,” Hartmann told commissioners Monday. “We need to make sure we do the appropriate due diligence and bring back a recommendation to the board.”
Airport spokeswoman Kristie Van Auken said Tuesday that the airport will keep Monday’s deadline for proposals. “We would not change the terms of the bid procedure, because it would not be fair to other bidders,” Van Auken said.
But she added that the county could put in a bid contingent on the completion of the appraisals and other research that it wants to do.
“We’re pretty excited that the county is moving in this direction,” she said. “We feel like it’s a very positive direction.”
Airport president and CEO Michael Landguth encouraged the county’s participation in the lease process in a letter to Hartmann on Sept. 16.
“Would it be possible to get a resolution from the Wake County commissioners stating their support for leasing these parcels?” Landguth wrote. He concluded: “This is truly an opportunity for a big win for the single track off-road trail community and the airport by generating funding to pay for critical airport infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, Holman of The Conservation Fund said the organization may also put together some sort of lease proposal for the 105 acres it is seeking to buy.
“It will probably be late this week before we make a decision about what to submit to the airport authority,” he said Tuesday.