Umstead Supporters Fight RDU Rock Quarry Lease

Oct 8, 2019

Signs opposing the proposed rock quarry on airport land have popped up around Wake and Durham counties.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

To lovers of the outdoors, Tamara Dunn lives on one of the most enviable pieces of property in the Triangle. Her 1.2-acre lot is barely a quarter mile from a bridge over one of the most congested parts of Interstate 40. Yet at the same time, it feels like it's miles away from the Triangle. She walks through her back yard, dodging low hanging branches.

"It used to be if you walked down this road, there's a little pond back there. There used to be picnic tables, there's all kinds of fire pits," she says. "The trails have been there for years. People have been mountain biking out here for 40 or 50 years. At least."

Her ranch style house with brown siding is right along one of the main thoroughfares into William B. Umstead State Park. The road is all gravel by the time you reach her house; her property is so wooded that even in the middle of a clear day, only a few rays of sun can find their way through the canopy of leaves and branches. She jokes about the one-lane bridge you have to cross to get back to her property.

"The sides are breaking off and the wood is splitting. It's kind of like my fence here," she asys laughing. "Only you drive across it! I'm just keeping the dogs in."

Tamara Dunn on her property near Umstead State Park.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Although it's tranquil, Dunn lives right by what has become one of the most controversial pieces of property in Wake County. The Raleigh-Durham International Airport shares 6.2 miles of border with  Umstead Park. Along one little patch of that border, the airport authority has leased property to Wake Stone so the mining company can expand a rock quarry. The lease is expected to generate more than $20 million for the airport, but park supporters are trying to stop the deal and leave the property undisturbed.

"I mean I'm sure nobody wants to live next to a quarry, but it just doesn't seem like a good use of it in this area," Dunn says.

But it's not just Dunn who doesn't want the quarry. Mountain bikers and hikers also love that area. Sit on her front porch for 10 minutes and you're likely to see at least a handful of joggers or bikers on what is known as the Oddfellows tract.

As Dunn stops at the corner of her property, Sam Griffin walks by on one of the trails. He says he's a regular out here.

"The place is a fantastic area to go hiking and walking around," he says. "The streams are beautiful down there. I've gone mountain biking all through here before. It's a great area just to kind of get some exercise and enjoy nature, close to downtown."

This map shows the location of the existing quarry in the southeast part of the map, and the proposed quarry expansion in purple. Wake Stone has proposed a park for off-road cyclists, pictured on this map in green.
Credit UNC School of Government / DFI Feasibility Analysis

Bikers, Hikers Trespass To Use Land

But there's a problem with all the mountain bikers and hikers who use those trails: They're all trespassing.

"Mountain bikers and others who've been using the land are actually trespassing on airport property," says Stephanie Hawco, a spokeswoman for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. And she's right. The Oddfellows site, as well as another tract used by off-road bikers, is owned by the airport. And it's clearly marked "No Trespassing."

"The property has never been designated for recreational use," says Hawco.

No Trespassing signs are clearly posted around the Oddfellows site.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

For years, RDU has turned a blind eye to the bikers, and it wants to lease the property to Wake Stone, a local mining company.

"The Wake Stone lease is estimated to conservatively generate $24 million in revenue for the airport at a time when we have nearly $2 billion in unmet and unfunded infrastructure needs," says Hawco. "And RDU's traditional funding sources won't cover the improvements that are critical to keeping up with our record-setting passenger growth. Like replacing our main runway and adding more gates in our terminals."

And that's the controversy in a nutshell. RDU owns the land and wants to lease it for rock mining. Park lovers want it to stay undisturbed, but don't own the property.

"The proposed new quarry pit, next to Umstead State Park, we believe would not be a good use of the property, nor a good neighbor," says Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition, a group dedicated to the preservation of the park. She argues that keeping the area undisturbed helps economic growth.

"What attracts the people to develop? A recreational facility, open space, common corridor or some community asset, a tourist destination?" she says. "Or, hey look at this lovely quarry with noise and dust and air quality and other issues."

Local Mining Since 1970

Wake Stone already operates a quarry directly next to the Oddfellows site. It sits right off the I-40 exit for Harrison Avenue. Dump trucks drive in and out all day. And heavy machinery crushes and hauls stone that's used in all kinds of construction.

Sam Bratton now heads the company that his father, John Bratton, founded in 1970. He drives a white pickup truck around the existing quarry, which is now several courses deep.

"The general public that drives by this site, most people don't even know we exist right here off Harrison when they're driving up and down (Interstate) 40," says Bratton. "So we think it will be kind of business as usual for another 25 to 35 years."

The existing Wake Stone quarry off Harrison Avenue has been mined several courses deep. It is nearing the end of its life.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

He argues that regulations like setback requirements, berms, and other safety measures will protect neighbors as well as the park. He says people will barely notice the mining operation at all.

"Blasting has become very sophisticated," he says. "The technology really minimizes ground vibration and air blast and the things that have the potential to create problems for neighboring properties."

But more than that, Wake Stone's primary argument about the quarry is what will happen to the property after they are done mining. Bratton shows plans to transform the quarry pit and operation site into a beautiful park. After all, he argues, quarries in other areas have had second lives as public spaces. In 2017, a retired qaurry became a new park in Winston-Salem.

Those post-quarry investments weren't part of the initial proposal. "But we're willing to make those concessions in order to take into consideration, concerns from the public," says Bratton. "Especially those who are interested in mountain biking and really don't have anywhere sanctioned to go."

Bratton also shows plans to fund a park specifically for mountain bikers.

"This would be really one of the first sanctioned areas in this part of the county that they could really do it without having to trespass," he said.

Lease or Sale?

Perhaps not surprisingly, Spooner and other park supporters don't put much faith in those promises.

"Obviously in the short term, the site could not be used for recreation," says Spooner. "We also believe that the watercolor maps are somewhat fancical."

There's also the issue of leasing land for a mining operation. If land is leased for a quarry, and then all the timber and stone are removed, leaving a 400-foot pit, is that really a lease? Gil Johnson is a board member on the Umstead Coalition. He likens it to leasing a car, but then returning it without seats or an engine.

"They're calling it a lease, but it's really a sale. They're taking the soil, trees, rock, everything off the property. And it's not being returned," he says. "That's a sale."

Offices of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority at RDU Airport.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

But that perspective is colored by the disbelief in the potential for the quarry site's afterlife. How you feel about the quarry comes down to how you feel about three questions. The first is whether you see the agreement as a lease, or really see it as a sale. The second is how much of a nuisance you believe the mining will cause. And the third is how much faith you put in the renderings of the site's potential after mining operations are done. After all, if mining is quiet, and the site really does become a beautiful park with acres for legal mountain biking, then it's truly a win for everyone, says Bratton.

"Post mining, there is a second life to these properties, and they can be actually a draw for folks to come and enjoy the outdoors," Bratton says.

But of course, the Umstead Coalition doesn't see it the same way.

"Is it really going to have a nice afterlife of a beneficial recreational facility? OK well prove that," says David Anderson, a board member of TORC the Triangle Off Road Cyclists.

He doesn't like that some of his compatriots use the property illegally, but he says that's what happens when supply doesn't meet demand. That's why he advocates for Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority to sell the land to the state park system in order to officially make it a part of Umstead.

"Why would we put a mining operation on the boarder of our most valuable and most prized recreational asset?" he says. "The calculus just doesn't make sense."

But those who support the park also understand funding needs for the airport. While the projected $24 million from the Wake Stone lease won't go very far toward the $2 billion the airport says it needs to fund its Vision 2040, it's better than nothing. To counter that offer, the Umstead Coalition is trying to raise money to buy or lease the land for itself.

"We believe and we have always tried to offer solutions that work together as a greater of the whole," says Spooner. "We have an amazing airport. We have an amazing state park. And we've always believed that if we work together as partners, we can be a greater whole for the community."