Politics & Government

RDU quarry lease came with no public input. Now critics want local governments to step in.

Opponents of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority’s decision to lease airport property for a quarry are continuing to urge local elected officials to intervene while the stone company tells them that’s not necessary.

The focus Tuesday was on the Raleigh City Council. Members of the Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and others told council members that they have a responsibility to determine whether the quarry on 105 acres adjacent to William B. Umstead State Park is in the public’s interest.

They note that the lease with Wake Stone Corp. was drafted behind closed doors and approved without public input. They maintain that state law requires that the four local governments that own the airport — Raleigh, Durham and Durham and Wake counties — be involved in the decision.

“Normally, a zoning process would come into play to evaluate the appropriateness of putting an industrial mining operation in a recreation district,” said David Anderson of the cyclists group, known as TORC. “The critical and needed question I think you should be asking is, ‘Is a new rock quarry on your public lands in the public’s best interest?’ ... It is Raleigh, not RDU Airport Authority, that needs to evaluate this decision on the broader merits and the impact beyond the airport.”

So far, none of the four boards has moved to intercede, though some individual members have expressed interest in doing so. Sam Bratton, the president of Wake Stone, told Raleigh council members they should defer to the airport’s governing board, which includes two members appointed by each of the four governments.

“They had studied this agreement thoroughly and saw the benefits for our entire area,” Bratton said. “My request is that you honor the Airport Authority’s decision.”

The Airport Authority unanimously approved the mining lease on March 1 without discussion, at a special meeting announced two days earlier. The lease would allow Wake Stone to quarry the property for 25 years, with optional annual extensions for 10 more years. RDU officials estimate the airport will receive $24 million over the life of the lease, mostly in the form of royalty payments for the stone removed from the ground.

TORC, the Umstead Coaltion and three individuals have filed suit to try to stop the quarry, arguing that the airport authority doesn’t have the power under state law to lease property for non-aeronautical purposes without approval from the four local governments. They also contend the lease amounts to a sale under state law and that the airport should have sought competitive bids and provided more than two days notice before approving it.

Both arguments are at the crux of their campaign to persuade the four governments to intercede.

“This lease of public property to a private business to operate a non-aeronautic purpose warrants a careful review and a public debate by the cities and counties that own this property,” Isabel Worthy Mattox, an attorney representing the Umstead Coalition, told council members Tuesday.

Wake Stone officials say there will be a public hearing when the company seeks the mining and environmental permits it needs to start digging. They point to their quarry on adjacent property as an indication of how the company operates.

“We have a model for our success that’s right next door,” Tom Oxholm, the company’s vice president, told council members. “We’ve been operating there for 38 years — 219 acres — and we’ve furnished over 50 million tons of aggregate that have been consumed in this community. And we’ve done it with no mining permit violations and no complaints.”

Raleigh council members did not respond to the pleas from both sides Tuesday, except for a question from David Cox, who represents the northeast part of the city, to Bratton, the Wake Stone president. Cox asked Bratton if he would support a public process in which the four governments vote on the quarry.

“That’s a matter for the airport and the airport authority, not for us,” Bratton replied. “ We’re not going to get involved in that.”

He then mentioned the public hearing required before the state issues a mining permit.

“There is going to be a public process, an open process,” he said. ”We believe that is the right process for us to move forward.”

On Wednesday, council member Dickie Thompson, one of the city’s two representatives on the Airport Authority, issued a statement that said RDU must come up with $3.7 billion for a new runway, expanded terminals and other projects over the next 15 to 20 years and that income from the quarry will help.

“The board understands environmentalists and mountain bikers want more land for recreation and trails,” Thompson wrote. “But RDU — by law — has to use its land to help fund airport operations.”

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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.