Take a jaunt around Lake Raleigh Woods and through the tall trees, and you can see geese gliding along the glimmering blue water, old-growth beech trees and well-worn trails left by those who love this nature preserve.
And you can hear the bang, bang, banging of hammers.
Architects and planners charged with erecting a $3 million, 8,500-square-foot mansion for the N.C. State University chancellor are touting the eco-friendly aspects of the project even as environmentalists decry its siting, just feet away from Lake Raleigh in a public nature preserve.
Chancellor Randy Woodson, who was officially installed this week after six months in office, says the house, dubbed "The Point," is crucial to the university's fundraising efforts. He needs a private place to wine and dine donors.
But some people who frequent the preserve oppose the project. They say that university is taking over most of the land that runs from the chancellor's back door to the lake's edge.
Paul Goodell, a lifelong Raleigh resident who graduated from N.C. State in 2001, runs along the Lake Raleigh Woods trails and questioned Woodson at a September chancellor's forum on the point of The Point.
"This new area that is being usurped or taken over is the nature preserve; this is so important; this is one of the most beautiful habitats in all of the Piedmont," Goodell said. "We should be holding this up and showing everyone how great N.C. State is for preserving this, not taking it piece by piece by piece and waiting for people to move on until we forget about it, and then eventually it will be gone."
Although administrators and environmentalists agreed in 2005 to restrict development near the lake, they didn't put the details in writing. The preservationists contend that the construction is extending beyond the spirit of the agreement, but they admit there's no way to prove it.
The UNC Board of Governors requires chancellors to live in university-owned houses. At N.C. Central University, Charlie Nelms resides in a 6,169-square-foot off-campus home built in 1974 and worth $1.1 million. At UNC, Holden Thorp's family lives at Quail Hill, a 1960s-era, 20-acre wooded estate that was renovated at a cost of more than $900,000 when Thorp was tapped for the job. (Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill had not responded to questions about the square footage of the respective chancellor's homes, at press time.)
By comparison, Purdue University, where Woodson served as provost prior to his new post, houses its chancellor in a 17,300-square-foot mansion called Westwood.
Woodson's new residence wasn't built for him specifically; he just happens to be the first chancellor to get the house keys. Plans for a chancellor's house were hatched five years ago, before Woodson was hired to replace James Oblinger, who scraped by in an 82-year-old, 7,900-square-foot home that somehow lacked the requisite entertaining space and parking for large-scale fundraisers.
Private donors, mostly former trustees, are paying for the construction. The residence is scheduled to be complete next fall.
The new residence was to be even bigger until architects sliced by about a third the original plan to erect a 12,300-square-foot home at a cost of $5 million. The scaled-down home is still spacious enough for a party of 250 on the back terrace or a reception for 60 inside. In addition, architects plan to build an A-frame pavilion—which would hold just four people—near the water. The pavilion is necessary, said its architect, College of Design Dean Marvin Malecha, because donors won't be able to get a clear view of Lake Raleigh from the mansion's second-floor porch.
It's not that the chancellor's residence is being built—it's where it's being built: near the shores of Lake Raleigh and the surrounding nature preserve, where the chancellor's complex, estimated to be at least two acres, cuts off popular hiking trails.
In 2005, Ana Duncan Pardo, a botany student at N.C. State, was judging an essay contest on sustainability when she learned about Lake Raleigh Woods. A fellow student inspired her with his plea to save its ecosystem and prevent impending development from being constructed on the lake's shore.
Duncan Pardo organized support for the preserve from the student and faculty senates, which each passed separate resolutions in support of preserving Lake Raleigh Woods.
As a result of the resolutions, in the spring of 2005 the N.C. State administration and the environmentalists struck an agreement. University planners were willing to halt almost one million square feet of proposed mixed development—condos, offices and academic facilities—near the lake, as long as the chancellor's residence could be located there.
For years, the lake's defenders thought they had earned a victory.
Then the fence was erected, which cuts off trail access within the preserve.
"From a purely philosophical standpoint, the university knowingly situated the chancellor's residence at what has been fought for and won as a community asset," Duncan Pardo says. "Cutting off trail access to that asset and commandeering an entire bluff for one individual and his family and friends seems pretty bogus to me."
At the chancellor's forum, Woodson pleaded ignorance about the 2005 agreement.
"Look, I wasn't here, I don't know about the resolutions. I'm not sure what the resolutions were that you are referring to, but apparently there was an agreement that that tract of land would be used for a new chancellor's residence. Is that true? And do you feel we're going against that resolution now?" Woodson asked Goodell during the forum.
"Yes, I do," Goodell responded. "Yes, very strongly, I do."
Yet there is a problem with the deal: The activists didn't get it in writing.
"There's no way to say whether they are sticking to the quote, unquote agreement, because it was subject to interpretation, given that it was never put on a map," Duncan Pardo says regretfully.
She says the current construction consumes more land than she expected, ensnarling trails and the lakeside view.
N.C. State Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Kevin MacNaughton says the plan never set a rigid boundary for the footprint of the property.
"As I look at the site plan, we really never figured out what the clearing area is out there; what you see today is essentially the cleared area," he says, estimating the property's size at two or three acres.
MacNaughton says he plans to reassess the fencing, which is for privacy and security, once the trees are bare. He wants to make certain that guests are unable to see the fence from the house. However, hikers will be able to see it.
As for the trails, MacNaughton says they are "kind of ad hoc." They hope to find new routes for walkers and joggers but to keep out mountain bikers because of their impact on the terrain.
Woodson and university officials are touting the "green" aspects of the residence: geothermal heating, LED lighting and a turf parking lot with zero groundwater runoff.
"One of the things I've been amazed by is the willingness to put into that project very expensive technologies and processes to ensure that the habitat is least impacted as possible," Woodson said at the forum, calling the house, "one of the most green facilities on this campus."
The irony is not lost on Goodell: "They are trying to sell this as an eco-friendly house, yet they are putting up a fence around the nature preserve and cutting it to build a McMansion."
At September's forum, Woodson emphasized the importance of having adequate space to court potential donors. (The Alumni Center, a few football field length's away from the new residence, is apparently not appropriate.)
To make the home pleasing to donors, Malecha said he created blueprints for "an ambassadorial residence" with "familiar modernism," in which new age architecture meets Southern plantation mansion style.
University planners hope the property will be viewed as a home not only to Woodson but to more than 300,000 N.C. State alumni, who, they say, will be welcomed as family.
"This is the people's house," Malecha says. "It's not the expression of a wealthy industrialist."