Wake County commissioners have renewed their interest in leasing 151 wooded acres from Raleigh-Durham International Airport for public use after the airport proposed building an eight-foot fence topped with barbed wire around the property to keep people out.
Commissioners are exploring a proposal to legally make the land available for off-road cycling and add it to nearby Lake Crabtree County Park. The park, which is on land leased from the airport south of Interstate 40, has a network of cycling trails, but over the years cyclists have blazed their own on airport property north of I-40, including through the woods the county might lease.
Keeping people from trespassing on that land is the main reason RDU says it wants to fence it off. County commissioner Sig Hutchinson proposed this week that the county consider leasing the property, before the airport goes through the trouble and expense of building a fence.
“I have every sense that if this doesn’t get resolved, the fence is going up,” Hutchinson said. “But they are going to work with us. My hope is they will continue to hold off until we can get this resolved.”
The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority was poised last month to award a contract to build the fence but put off a decision when the state Division of Parks and Recreation objected, saying the fence would create problems for adjacent Umstead State Park and its users. The state asked the airport to consider alternatives, including possibly selling the 151 acres along Reedy Creek Road to the state so it can be added to Umstead.
But airport officials say they are forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration from selling property for use as a park. They cite the FAA’s enforcement of a 1966 federal law that discourages the creation of public parks and recreation areas on or adjacent to airport property.
Those regulations don’t apply to leasing land for a public park or recreational use, says RDU’s chief operating officer Bill Sandifer, because the airport would still own the property and could take it back. That’s why RDU was able to lease property to the county for Lake Crabtree park and would consider leasing the 151 acres.
RDU put that property up for lease in 2017 and received one offer, from Wake County. At the same time, Wake Stone Corp. and The Conservation Fund, a national environmental organization, made competing offers to lease 105 acres of airport land across the road known as the Odd Fellows tract. In March 2016, the Airport Authority voted to lease the Odd Fellows land to Wake Stone for a quarry.
Negotiations between RDU and Wake County over the lease of the 151 acres ended in the fall of 2018, when Wake Stone offered to contribute $3.6 million to help the county pay for the lease as part of the company’s quarry agreement with the airport. Because opponents of the quarry are fighting the project in court, Wake’s attorneys have advised the county not to get involved with the 151 acres until the lawsuit has played out, according to Greg Ford, chairman of the board of commissioners.
But Hutchinson says the threat of a fence creates a sense of urgency. He proposed the county pursue the lease as part of a broader plan he calls the Wake Trails Initiative, which would include a “Bike & Brew Garden” at Lake Crabtree County Park where riders could eat, drink and hang out before or after a ride.
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Hutchinson’s three-member growth and sustainability committee voted to ask Wake parks staff to research the potential for a lease and address questions about the county’s role in developing and maintaining trails, whether other private or public organizations might take part and how it all would be paid for.
“That’s just one of the discussions we’ve got to have, how are we going to pay for this,” Hutchinson said. “Pay for the infrastructure, the capital costs of the trail system, the long-term lease — all of that would be part of the negotiations with the RDU Airport Authority.”
Hutchinson said RDU’s Sandifer attended the commissioner’s meeting and that Sandifer said the airport was interested in continuing to talk with the county. An airport spokeswoman said Sandifer wasn’t available to comment this week because “there’s nothing new to add at this point.”
The Airport Authority is not scheduled to consider moving ahead with the fence when it meets Thursday.
Sandifer told Airport Authority members late last fall that the cycling trails on its property posed liability problems for the airport and degraded streams, in violation of rules designed to protect waterways in the Neuse River basin. At RDU’s request, the state Department of Environmental Quality toured the property in September and produced a letter late last week acknowledging damage to buffers along the streams.
In the letter, Sheila Holman, the assistant secretary for the Environment, said the agency was aware that the property could be leased 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,” Holman wrote. “DEQ stands ready to work with all parties to come to an acceptable resolution.”