Op-Ed

We need a bolder plan for RDU Airport’s open land

Push for more trails on RDU land

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
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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

Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) owns more than 1,000 acres of mostly forested lands that are unneeded for aviation within the foreseeable future. The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that RDU use these “non-aviation” lands for community benefit, including generation of revenue to support ongoing aviation operations.

These “non-aviation” acres represent an unparalleled economic opportunity for revenue and quality-of-life benefits to both the airport and the surrounding region, including RDU’s four equal-share public owners (Raleigh, Durham, Wake County and Durham County). Yes, RDU is publicly owned.

RDU has recently completed a document that purports to be a strategic plan. However, it is not. Rather, it is little more than a how-to manual for long-term aviation expansion. The airport administration has defended this parochial focus by alleging that broader consideration of community needs would detrimentally delay FAA approval of pressing infrastructure improvements. This is a complete fabrication.

The Triangle is one of the most exciting growth areas of our nation. Our airport must be more than a mere conduit for transportation. It must be a collaborative and engaged partner, working proactively with the community for the good of the region. As such, its strategic plan must reflect community input and address opportunities for the airport to contribute to the economic vitality and quality of life within the region. RDU’s plan does neither.

On the topic of the airport’s role as a corporate citizen seeking intelligent use of its extensive non-aviation lands, RDUVision2040 is almost entirely silent. So much for the Vision part. The narrowly focused operational document released for public comment last fall would be better called RDUTarmac2040.

An internationally recognized landscape-development firm visited the Triangle and conducted a very favorable exploratory analysis of the economic potential for RDU’s non-aviation lands, in recognition of the property’s unique character and potential for recreational and commercial development. In addition, one of our airport’s owners, Wake County, commissioned an ongoing study to better understand the recreation potential of the non-aviation property.

Furthermore, citizens’ groups including Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, the Umstead Coalition and RDU Forest Group have all entreated with the airport administration for a broader and more collaborative approach to the utilization of non-aviation lands. Current airport administration has consistently responded with perfunctory acknowledgment and genuine disinterest.

Current airport management sees our airport as a transportation enterprise to be optimized, not as a corporate citizen that is both servant and steward to its host community. Accordingly, RDU has expended more than $4 million on a narrowly conceived operational expansion plan. Minimal effort was exerted in dialogue with local chambers of commerce, business leaders or members of the public to explore potential for synergistic economic development or partnership with the greater Triangle region. The ultimate cost of this squandered opportunity for GreaterVision2040 will far exceed the $4 million spent to date.

Ignoring the creative proposals offered to our airport by hopeful collaborators, airport administration has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for roughly 256 acres of non-aviation lands, with a 30-day response deadline. As few respondents (and no public entity) could complete due diligence within this truncated window, the RFP is not an effort to explore opportunities; rather, it is a blatant attempt to constrain them. This RFP has been challenged for possible failure to follow North Carolina law for transparency and communications with the public.

The current RFP controversy stems from community desires to preserve and protect roughly 256 acres of airport land as a recreational resource, in partnership with Wake County, the Conservation Fund and Umstead State Park. This endeavor is worthwhile on its own merits, particularly as the alternative is the creation of a new and unneeded stone quarry in the heart of Cary.

However, the current controversy is just one facet of a much larger issue. It is rooted in the conflict between the airport administration’s efforts to implement a narrowly conceived RDUVision2040 plan as expediently as possible and an opposing community reaction to that plan, which is broadly perceived as a missed opportunity for economic collaboration and enhanced quality of life for our region. Intelligent and environmentally sensitive development of these acres will result in decades of enduring benefits to the region.

Citizens of the Triangle need to decide (acting through their representatives on the airport’s board) whether they want to see the future of RDU Airport directed by a parochial and myopic focus on operational issues and short-sighted revenue from a stone quarry, or whether they will insist on more dynamic and creative engagement by airport staff with the airport’s public owners. Once that decision is made, we each need to make our voices heard.

Rex Schaberg, MBA, Ph.D, is a natural resource economist and a longtime Wake County resident committed to regional growth and outdoor recreation.

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