The FAA says it won’t stand in the way of a quarry on RDU airport land

Members of the audience for Friday’s meeting of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority meeting show their feelings, before the board voted to make 105 acres of airport land available for a quarry.
Members of the audience for Friday’s meeting of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority meeting show their feelings, before the board voted to make 105 acres of airport land available for a quarry. rstradling@newsobserver.com

The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that it doesn’t need to review and approve Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s lease of 105 acres of airport property for a stone quarry.

Opponents of the quarry have argued that the Airport Authority was not authorized to lease the property to Wake Stone Corp. without permission of the FAA and the four local governments that appoint members to the authority — Raleigh, Durham and Wake and Durham counties.

But the FAA’s regional director of airports, Steven Hicks, told RDU president Michael Landguth in a letter Monday that the federal agency won’t do a full-blown review of the lease because the planned quarry “does not appear to adversely affect the safe and efficient operation of aircraft or safety of people and property on the ground related to aircraft operations.”

Hicks also noted that federal money was not used to buy the land, known as the Odd Fellows property, which the airport acquired in the 1970s for a runway that was never built.

The letter was a follow-up to one sent in March in which the FAA’s general counsel’s office said it was still reviewing the matter. The airport authority approved the 25-year mining lease on March 1.

Landguth hailed the FAA’s decision late Monday.

“This letter from the FAA affirms what we have said from day one – that no federal release is required to move forward with the land-lease agreement,” Landguth said in a statement.

In his letter, Hicks said the FAA has an obligation to ensure RDU receives “not less than fair market value under the lease terms,” and that the money be used for the benefit of the airport. He said the federal agency may verify those conditions “at a later date.”

In his statement, Landguth said RDU has “met its obligation to ensure that it receives fair market value for the land,” though he did not elaborate.

Wake Stone has agreed to pay royalties on the value of stone it mines from the quarry, providing an estimated $24 million over the life of the quarry. Airport officials say that money will help pay for construction projects at RDU, including new gates in the terminals and the replacement of the main runway, which alone is expected to cost about $350 million.

Opponents of the quarry — the Umstead Coalition, Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and three individuals — have won a court order barring Wake Stone from mining the property until Aug. 5 as part of their lawsuit to block the airport’s lease. Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway is expected to hold a hearing on the merits of the case before the order runs out.

Jean Spooner, who heads the Umstead Coalition, said the opponents feel they still have a strong case to make.

“By N.C. statute, the local governments have a say in how their land is disposed (or not),” Spooner wrote in an email. “We know the public is strongly opposed to the destruction of its public lands along the border of William B. Umstead State Park and Crabtree Creek. Great harm would come to both if a new rock quarry is allowed.”

The airport authority agreed to the extension of the restraining order because it does not prevent the company from preparing for the quarry, including seeking permits and doing exploratory drilling, said RDU spokeswoman Crystal Feldman. Wake Stone’s president, Sam Bratton, has said it will take more than a year for the company to obtain the mining and environmental permits it needs to begin mining.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.