By Lauren Ohnesorge – Senior Staff Writer, Triangle Business Journal
Weeks after Raleigh-Durham International Airport hit “pause” on its controversial perimeter fence plan near Umstead State Park, a compromise could be in the works.
A group of Wake County Commissioners, led by Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, is trying to push forward a plan that would have the county leasing a tract of land known as “286” for up to 40 years as a bike park.
The land, located to northwest if you’re heading over Interstate 40 from Lake Crabtree County Park toward Umstead, is part of RDU’s proposed fencing plan, which has been met with criticism by environmentalists and trail enthusiasts.
“If we do this long-term lease, there would be no reason to fence this area,” says Hutchinson.
His plan, first publicly unveiled at a meeting of the county’s growth and sustainability commission Monday, comes as RDU finally hears back from regulators acknowledging the environmental damage caused by cyclists on property near Umstead State Park. An airport consultant had met with regulators with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality back in September to point out the impact cycling may have had on RDU-owned land.
And public records show airport officials hoped regulators would put it in writing – that the cyclists trespassing on RDU land were violating environmental regulations and causing site damage.
“DEQ is aware of the activity at the property and the resulting damage to the buffers,” the letter, signed by Sheila Holman, assistant secretary for the environment, reads. “DEQ is also aware of ongoing discussions among several parties regarding potential scenarios where land would be leased from RDU for a single track bike facility. DEQ recommends that such an agreement be expedited to the extent possible so that the ongoing environmental impacts can be addressed and resolved long-term.”
In a statement put out by RDU, officials note DEQ “acknowledges that the illegal trails built by bikers on airport property” have damaged Neuse River Basin buffers.
And the airport acknowledges “discussions with third parties” regarding a lease of 151 acres – known as the “286 tract” – for mountain biking. “Any lease agreement will require the third party to receive environmental permits from state regulators to construct bike trails on airport property,” the statement reads. An RDU spokeswoman confirmed that some of the ongoing conversations have been with Wake County commissioners.
The land has been used – albeit illegally – by cyclists for decades. In recent years, RDU, claiming liability concerns, has begun posting no-trespassing signs trying to put a stop to its use.
Hutchinson says that, by making the trails part of Lake Crabtree County Park, liability issues for RDU would be moot.
Hutchinson acknowledges his plan is early.
Hutchinson says the committee agreed to ask staff to come back with more information on options next month. The next step could be a work session with the full commission to request that discussions begin with RDU Airport Authority.
The perimeter fence – proposed by RDU as a way to keep trespassers off the property – is just the latest controversy. Last March, RDU’s decision to lease nearby land to Wake Stone for a quarry expansion prompted petitions and a lawsuit which is currently under appeal.
But, as part of that controversial lease, Wake Stone agreed to offer up $3.6 million toward a third party lease of 286 for a bike park.
Hutchinson says that’s still on the table.
“There’s going to be a lease that we have to pay for, and there’s some capital cost and operating cost,” he says. “So, as we look at a proposal, we’re going to have to consider how to pay for it.”
Hutchinson hopes a lease of the 286 site would just be the beginning. His ultimate goal is for a ride center. The 286 tract is about 150 acres, and a ride center would require about 300 acres. Hutchinson envisions a destination ride center where people could drive in and hit the trails.
“If we can get this acquired with the airport… then I’d love to talk to other potential partners about expanding it from there,” Hutchinson says.
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