Durham County

Raleigh won’t join lawsuit against ‘RDU Quarry’ near Umstead Park. At least for now.

Update: This story was updated at 2 p.m. Thursday.

City leaders don’t like a planned quarry near Umstead Park but will hold off on a potential lawsuit.

At least for now.

The Raleigh City Council voted Tuesday to issue a statement saying it opposes 105 acres of Raleigh-Durham International Airport property being used as a quarry and “believes the RDU Airport Authority should have obtained the city’s permission before entering into the quarry lease.”

But the city will wait for a judge’s decision in a lawsuit filed by the Umstead Coaltion and others against RDU and Wake Stone Corp. before deciding “if and what legal steps it may take going forward,” the statement says.

The vote was 7-0 during a two-hour closed session.

Council member Dickie Thompson was not at the Tuesday meeting. He is one of the city’s two appointments to the RDU Airport Authority and voted for the lease.

The Airport Authority voted in March to lease 105 acres to Wake Stone for a quarry for about $24 million over the 25-year lease. The Umstead Coalition, the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and three individuals sued the authority and Wake Stone claiming the four governments that own the airport need to approve the lease. The land is owned by Raleigh, Wake County, the city of Durham and Durham County.

The lawsuit also argues the airport authority violated the state’s open meetings law. The case is set to be heard in Wake County Superior Court on Thursday morning, though a decision isn’t expected that day.

The decision Tuesday comes months after some council members tried to get the council to intervene in the proposed quarry.

Debate at council

At a recent City Council meeting member Stef Mendell asked City Attorney Robin Currin if the city had “standing to intervene in the lawsuit.”

Before Currin could answer, Mayor Nancy McFarlane interjected, saying she didn’t feel it was “appropriate” to discuss a pending legal action during an open meeting. State law gives the council the right to go into a private closed session to talk about lawsuits involving the city.

“I don’t think we should be talking about anything pertaining to a lawsuit in an open session,” McFarlane said. “We have never done it.”

Council members David Cox and Kay Crowder said they disagreed.

“This is about governing, not politicking,” McFarlane began, before she was interrupted by Cox.

“This is about governing,” Cox said. “This is about governing transparently in front of the people of this city.”

The city attorney did eventually jump in, at the request of Crowder, saying she did not want to talk about anything “covered by the attorney-client privilege.”

“Your name is on the deed as has been pointed out,” Currin said. “There is a lawsuit going on that is trying to determine what rights the city has because you’re on the deed. Now, under the intervention rules, you would have, in my opinion the right to ask the court to come in and give a position.”

“That is as far as I can go in open session,” Currin said. “But again that’s not an answer of whether we should or shouldn’t or what the merits would be.”

‘Environmental destruction’

Mendell also tried to get the council to talk about joining the lawsuit against the authority and Wake Stone, but that attempt failed.

It has nothing to do with joining the lawsuit, McFarlane said, but that she needed time to catch up on the discussion after being out for recent back surgeries.

“What we all know for sure, without a doubt, is there will be an enormous environmental destruction by this 100-acre quarry,” Council member Russ Stephenson said. “Likewise no one disputes that it will be impossible to undo the environmental damage caused by the long-term negative impacts of the quarry.”

That late August discussion came months after the proposed quarry was first brought up in March, almost immediately after the airport authority made its decision.

At that meeting, Cox asked for several things including a letter from the council asking the authority to reconsider its vote on the lease. But his effort failed.

At the time, the city attorney said the city can’t prevent the lease from moving forward.

“You don’t have any authority to stop it or change it,” Currin said. “There is nothing illegal about stating an opinion or making some sort of request.”

Campaign issue

The proposed quarry has become an election issue. Some candidates, including Cox, Stephenson, Mendell and Crowder, have actively campaigned on the issue even though some of their opponents agree the city should join the lawsuit.

Stephenson, in particular, has sent mailers on the topic to residents and has sponsored social media ads with his stand on the quarry.

Quarry opponents have packed some forums, occasionally wearing “Anti-RDU Quarry” stickers.

At a recent District E forum, they interrupted the moderator after he announced the last question for the candidates and the quarry had not been addressed. District E makes up Northwest Raleigh and is closest to the quarry.

“We want to hear about the quarry,” called out Donna Bailey, the Hillsborough-Wade Citizens Advisory Council chairperson.

After the forum, David Knight, an environmental consultant who is challenging Mendell for the District E seat, was approached by Bailey and others demanding he announce his support for the city joining the Umstead Coalition lawsuit.

He did, and reaffirmed his position in The News & Observer’s District E questionnaire.

“I’ve spent my whole career creating and preserving public lands and open space, and given the chance on council I would vote for a park and against the quarry,” he wrote.

Airport Authority

The rift between city leaders over the proposed quarry has spilled into even the more routine work of the council.

At nearly every council meeting city leaders nominate and vote on members for boards and commissions. The appointments are often noncontroversial, but not for a recent appointment to the airport authority.

The city of Raleigh, along with Wake County, Durham County and the city of Durham, all appoint two members to the airport authority.

For months the council members have split 4-4 on whether to reappoint Sepideh Saidi, founder of Septi Engineering and Construction, or appoint Nancy Pekarek, an Umstead Coaltion board member and former GlaxoSmithKline executive.

Every member of the airport authority, including Saidi, voted for the lease with Wake Stone. Pekarek is against the proposed quarry and local activist groups have rallied around her nomination.

If the city is split on its appointment, the incumbent keeps serving until a decision is made. And that’s not likely until a new council takes office.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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