2,200 words, 12-minute read
Umstead State Park in winter is at its least beautiful, but in no way is it ugly. Within the park’s palette of gray and rust appear plush pelts of moss in iridescent green and coarse crowns of lichens in dusty mint. Outcrops of ancient rocks, composed of minerals such as feldspar and quartz, are strewn across the forest floor like scattered teeth.
Failing to observe property lines, the park’s outcrops extend east and west of the park to 250 acres owned by the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. Wake Stone, which has operated a quarry nearby for more than 35 years, wants the rock. The Airport Authority needs the money.
Under a controversial agreement, the Airport Authority board  has leased 105 acres, known as the “Odd Fellows tract,” to Wake Stone, which, provided the test borings prove fruitful, would timber it. Then on 45 of the acres, the company would blast a pit 40 stories deep to extract the minerals, crush them and sell the material for road-building and other uses. While Wake Stone has agreed to invest millions of dollars in adjacent natural areas and mountain bike trails, the mining could continue for 25 years or more.
The lease has raised concerns about transparency and inclusiveness of the Airport Authority board, whose eight members include several real estate developers and construction company owners. The board is appointed by the Durham City Council, Durham County Commission, Raleigh City Council and Wake County Commission, but three of those four elected bodies say they were not consulted on the deal.
“Important considerations affecting the long-term vision for our area require that our elected leaders be directly involved,” said Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition , which opposes the quarry. “They represent the public’s best interests.”
The lease also has plunged the board into a legal morass over the role of the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s still in dispute whether the FAA has to approve the agreement; the board has not approached the agency for input, an FAA spokesperson told Policy Watch. But the board claims it doesn’t need permission from the federal or local governments to lease the land.
In the absence of governmental checks on the lease, watchdogging has been left to the Umstead Coalition, a group of mountain bikers, nature lovers and park patrons who oppose the quarry and demand that the property remain in its natural state.
With just enough public notice to meet legal muster, the board voted unanimously last Friday to approve the lease with Wake Stone. The room erupted with the chants of coalition members: “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
On a recent Sunday afternoon in Umstead Park, frogs, hidden in the leaves, chirped from puddles. Mountain bikers rang their bells, calling out “On your left,” while low clouds masking the rumble of jetliners above reminded park-goers of the presence of nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
RDU’s Vision 2040 plan calls for the airport to expand, adding amenities and runways to serve an increasing number of passengers and flights. To achieve that vision, said board member and Raleigh City Councilman Dickie Thompson, the airport needs to find more ways to earn money. Federal grants for the airport, Thompson said, “are uncertain.”
Enter Wake Stone, a mining company with several quarries in North Carolina, including one near Umstead State Park. In 2017, Wake Stone approached the board about buying or leasing the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract and another 150-acre parcel, known as the “286 tract,” for mining. This was the company’s second attempt at the land; it tried to lease the tract in 1980 for a rock quarry, but the airport rejected the proposal. Instead Wake Stone built is current quarry on private land near Harrison Avenue and I-40.
Meanwhile, in 2017, an environmental nonprofit, the Conservation Fund got wind of the proposal, and also bid on purchasing the land for preservation. The fund offered to pay roughly $6.5 million – the appraised value, according to North Carolina State Director Bill Holman, to expand Umstead State Park.
“We wanted to give the Airport Authority board a choice,” Holman said. “Umstead is one of the most popular parks in the state. It’s really important for people to have places to go.”
A purchase would have required FAA approval.
In October 2017, the airport board held a public meeting at which Wake Stone and the Conservation Fund pitched their respective plans. Board member John Kane, who is a real estate developer, successfully moved to reject both bids. Wake Stone returned in 2018 with a lease proposal.
Wake Stone officials declined to talk on the record about the intricacies of the deal-making. However, Tom Oxholm, vice president of finance and administration, said the company has been transparent, providing tours for mountain bikers and elected officials, including Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson.
The board reportedly told Wake Stone that it needed to sweeten the deal for park users and mountain bikers, who were already upset about the conversion of natural resources to extraction. The company has also agreed to contribute $3.6 million for Wake County to manage the 286 tract and to fund connectors between the park and greenway system, and another $3 million to reclaim part of the land when the mineral sources have been exhausted – in the middle of this century.
From a purely financial viewpoint, the lease could be more lucrative for RDU than the Conservation Fund’s proposal. Wake Stone must pay of $8.5 million over 25 years, plus 5.5 percent of net sales in annual royalties. If the lease is extended to 35 years, which is a possibility under the agreement, the company could pay the airport a total of $24 million through 2055 — although that scenario is speculative.
“It’s clear the lease is bad deal for the community, the airport and the environment,” Spooner said.
In acting, however, the board may have omitted several crucial – and legally mandated – steps.
An FAA spokesperson told Policy Watch that the RDU Airport Authority has not asked the agency about the property. The FAA must approve a long-term lease of airport property “for non-aeronautical purposes.” A long-term lease is defined as longer than 25 years; with the possibility of extension, the Wake Stone lease agreement ranges from 25 to 35 years, potentially triggering the need for FAA approval.
When the legislature established the Airport Authority in 1939, it gave the four local governments ownership and appointment power to the board. “It was to keep any one owner from having too much control,” Thompson said, “and to keep out pressure from special interests groups.”
Arguably though, special interests groups do have access to the board via elected officials who have been appointed to it. For example, in September 2017, a month before the airport board turned down the purchase bids, four Wake Stone executives each contributed $1,000 to Thompson’s re-election campaign for Raleigh City Council, according to state records.
Wake Stone officials have a long history of campaign contributions – to both parties — for state and local offices, including Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane. However, they did not contribute to Thompson’s 2015 campaign.
Spooner and Coalition attorney Isabel Mattox also contributed to Thompson’s 2017 campaign, albeit only $100 each.
Thompson, though, says he is a long-time supporter of the park. “My children grew up going to Umstead Park,” Thompson said at the Raleigh City Council meeting. “I would never do anything to jeopardize it for any amount of money.”
Further complicating matters, attorneys for the board and the cities of Raleigh and Durham, as well as the Umstead Coalition, are debating whether the Wake Stone agreement violates a 1959 state law. That statute does allow the airport to lease property for less than 40 years without the consent of the four local governments. But coalition attorney Isabel Mattox argued, the airport cannot lease the property for “non-airport purposes” without the consent of the four local governments in Durham and Wake counties.
Three of the four, the exception being Wake County, have said they’ve not been approached by the company or the airport board, nor included in conversations about the lease.
Durham City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg told Policy Watch that the FAA had approved an Airport Layout Plan which included the Odd Fellows tract for quarrying, in the fall of 2017. “That would seem to negate the need for the individual localities to weigh in on the matter,” she said.
Yesterday, the Raleigh City Council passed a resolution asking the FAA to provide clarity on the matter. (It tied on a vote to ask the authority board for greater transparency and inclusiveness, and to prohibit clear-cutting until the FAA decision arrived.)
Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the Wake county Board of Commissioners, said she’s concerned about the environmental impact of the quarry, especially considering its close proximity to Umstead Park. “Umstead Park is a state treasure and an invaluable asset to the Triangle, an increasingly dense and urban environment,” Holmes said. “The RDU Authority should thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of any action taken that could impact the use and vitality of the park.”
Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson originally opposed the project, but warmed to it after the company made concessions and commitments to help the county add natural areas and mountain bike trails on the 286 tract. Wake County will lease that land for 20 to 30 years — 10-15 for free and another 10-15 for $250,000 annually, he said. In comparison, RDU leases the 215-acre Lake Crabtree Park to the county for $1 a year.
“I’m an environmentalist.” Hutchinson said, “but I’m a realist.”
Hutchinson said the quarry will be reclaimed for recreation after the mining is finished, and will become a park. However, the lease agreement does not require the pit to be filled. Instead, there will be permanent security fencing to keep passersby from falling in, as well as “scenic pit overlooks.”
“The RDU Airport Authority has control over that land,” Hutchison went on. “They have one responsibility – fiduciary – and that’s to the airport.”
As forests go, the stands in Umstead State Park are young to middle-aged. Eighty years ago, the land was primarily fields and pastures, but farmers had depleted the soil through ill-advised agricultural practices. Frustrated, they abandoned the land, which for them had lost its value.
Over time, federal and state agencies bought 5,700 acres and turned the fallow fields into a park. The trees gradually returned, although some of the largest ones were toppled in 1996 by Hurricane Fran. But even fallen trees have purpose: Turkey tail mushrooms proliferate on their stumps. They feed the leaf litter and subterranean fungal networks that scientists now know trees use to communicate with one another.
Even if the lease clears all possible FAA and local government hurdles, Wake Stone still has to navigate the state permitting process. A DEQ spokesperson said until the Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources receives an application, it’s unknown whether the permit would be new or merely a modification of the existing one for the nearby quarry.
DEMLR seldom turns down a permit. Likewise, the division rarely cites a mine for a violation. Of the 760-plus active mines in the state, DEMLR issued just 12 notices of violations from 2012 to 2017, according to state records. The number of annual inspections also varies, ranging from 884 in Fiscal Year 2012 to 492 in Fiscal Year 2016.
DEQ can, but isn’t required, to hold public hearings for modified permits. A 2017 state law allows the DEQ secretary to determine “if there is significant public interest” before granting a public hearing, although that seems likely to be present in the Umstead case.
But once a permit is granted, the public has little opportunity to comment. The same state law gives mines and quarries “life of site” permits, meaning in most cases, they are automatically renewed – without public comment.
Life of site is defined as from the moment the state issues the permit until the mine reclamation — essentially some form of land restoration — is finished. And no reclamation permit is required for the company to restore the land, as long as the company adheres to its formal plan.
Given the testing, permitting and likely legal challenges to the lease agreement, it could take years for the quarry to open, if it ever does. Wake Stone has four and a half years to begin mining, otherwise, the airport board can terminate the agreement. If it exhausts the allotted time, the company has agreed to pay $100,000 to the airport, plus any proceeds from timber sales. If the mine stalls, though, the airport will have lost money it could have otherwise had. But by then, Umstead Coalition members note, trees will have been cut. In another 80 years, perhaps they’ll return.