RDU authority broke the law in seeking land leases, group says

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority has put these three pieces of land, totaling about 256 acres, up for lease.
The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority has put these three pieces of land, totaling about 256 acres, up for lease. RDU

An environmental group is accusing the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority of breaking the law when it rejected an offer to buy 105 acres of airport land and then put that property and other airport land up for lease.

The Umstead Coalition says those two decisions were made in meetings that were closed to the public and were not acknowledged when the authority met in open session – both violations, it says, of the state’s open meetings law for public boards.

“If RDUAA can point to any evidence that those decisions were, in fact, made during open session, we ask you to provide such evidence to us before September 19, 2017,” Kym Hunter, an attorney for The Southern Environmental Law Center, wrote in a letter Tuesday to airport authority chairman Farad Ali, a former Durham City Council member who is now running for mayor in the Bull City.

“If we do not hear from you, we will consider our legal options to ensure that the ... principles of the North Carolina Open Meetings law and open transparent governance can prevail,” Hunter concluded.

Her letter asks that the decisions about the land be rescinded, including the requests for lease proposals.

Attempts to reach Ali for comment were not immediately successful. RDU spokeswoman Kristie Van Auken issued a statement late Tuesday saying that the airport authority had received Hunter’s letter and would look into its claims.

“The Authority takes it responsibilities under open meetings laws very seriously and carefully considers all decisions to enter into closed session,” the statement continued. “While we dispute SELC’s allegations, we will be reviewing the circumstances surrounding the closed sessions and will respond to SELC’s letter appropriately.”

Offer made

The Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit group, offered $6.46 million to the airport authority on July 10 to buy 105 acres of airport land between Interstate 40 and William B. Umstead State Park, adjacent to a quarry owned by Wake Stone Corp. The Conservation Fund said it made the offer in conjunction with The Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists with the goal of preserving the land and having it added to the park.

Bill Holman, the state director of The Conservation Fund, said the organization received a letter late Friday, Sept. 8 saying the offer had been turned down. In the letter, Ali listed several reasons why its long-standing practice is not to sell property, including the need to comply with federal laws and regulations and to have space for future development.

At the same time, the airport authority announced that it was making about 256 acres of undeveloped airport property near the park available for lease. That includes parcels of 60.4 and 90.6 acres west of Old Reedy Creek Road and the 105 acres, sometimes referred to as the Odd Fellows property, that the Conservation Fund has sought.

Hunter said the decisions to reject the Conservation Fund’s offer to buy the land and to make it available for lease were not made or acknowledged during the airport authority’s recent public meetings. She said the most logical time for them to have been made was during a two-hour closed session that took place before its most recent meeting on Aug. 17.

In her letter to Ali, Hunter asks for copies of the minutes of that closed meeting, and any other meeting during which the three pieces of airport land were discussed.

The authority says it will accept proposals to lease the property, in pieces or altogether, until Oct. 9. In his letter to the Conservation Fund, Ali said the organization was welcome to make a lease offer.

Jean Spooner, chairwoman of The Umstead Coalition, said the organization is willing to talk about any options for preserving the land for public use, including long-term leases. Spooner said the offer to purchase the property still stands, too.

“We believe that the offer is a valid offer – that the airport authority can accept it and can get approval from the FAA to accept,” she said. “But the first thing is that decisions should be discussed and made per the open meetings law of North Carolina.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling