RDU board did not violate open meetings law, its attorney 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

The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority did not violate the state open meetings law in the decision to put hundreds of acres of airport property up for lease because the authority did not make the decision, its attorney said Thursday.

Instead, the decision was made by the airport’s staff, attorney Erin Locklear said in a written statement she read to the board.

Locklear was responding to a letter from Kym Hunter, an attorney for the the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Umstead Coalition, which accused the authority of violating the open meetings 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 letter said those two decisions appeared to have been made in a meeting that was closed to the public on Aug. 17 and were not acknowledged when the authority later met in open session.

“I appreciate SELC’s attention to open meetings issues,” Locklear said. “SELC’s primary concern was that they believed the board took action in an improper closed session. This is incorrect. As you all know, the board did not take any action in that closed session.”

Locklear said airport staff members have rejected numerous offers to buy land over the years without a vote by the board. In addition, she said, while the airport authority will have to approve any leases for airport land, the decision to seek those leases can be made by staff alone.

At issue is an offer of $6.46 million made to the airport authority by The Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit group, on July 10 to buy 105 acres of airport land between Interstate 40 and William B. Umstead State Park. 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.

On Sept. 8, The Conservation Fund received a letter from RDU saying the offer had been turned down. In the letter, airport authority chairman Farad Ali listed several reasons for its long-standing practice 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 had sought.

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.

In her statement Thursday, Locklear acknowledged that Hunter was correct that the closed meeting on Aug. 17 was not advertised on the airport’s website, as it would normally have been.

“Since no one actually involved with the meeting had any idea that the meeting notice had not been posted as we normally do, as you know, the meeting proceeded in its normal, scheduled manner,” she said. “This board had no idea that the notice had not been posted and did nothing wrong at that meeting.”

Jean Spooner, head of The Umstead Coalition, said she still thinks the authority should have a public discussion about The Conservation Fund’s offer and why it was turned down. And she’d like the board to release the minutes from the closed meeting on Aug. 17 so the public can see what was discussed there.

But that’s not going to happen, said Mitch Armbruster, a Raleigh attorney hired by the airport authority to review and respond to Hunter’s letter. In a reply dated Thursday, Armbruster wrote that releasing the minutes of the closed meeting would “frustrate the reason for the closed session” in the first place. The reason for the meeting was to consult with attorneys.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling