For 20 years, hikers, bikers, joggers and dog-walkers have enjoyed the hilly, densely wooded trails that abut Lake Crabtree County Park. But now, many of the park's users are worried that the 9-mile network of trails, which constitute more than 80 percent of Lake Crabtree County Park, is in jeopardy.
The trails sit on 149 acres between Interstate 40 and Lake Crabtree, in Morrisville. The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority owns the land and has leased it in five-year increments to Wake County Parks and Recreation, since 1994. The county, in partnership with nonprofit Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, manages and maintains the trails. Last December, however, the RDU Airport Authority did not renew the lease with Wake County.
In March, the RDU Airport Authority commissioned the D.C.-based Urban Land Institute to generate a report on ways the Airport Authority could use around 2,000 acres of land it owns, but which can't be used for aeronautical purposes. RDU says it needs to find new ways to fund and develop airport facilities. "Like airports across the country, RDU can no longer depend upon airline activity, the passenger facility charge and federal grants to pay for major airport projects," the RDU Airport Authority stated in a post on its blog, RDU Cruising Altitude, last week.
While the ULI report ruled out using Lake Crabtree County Park—a separate parcel that includes the lake, under lease to Wake County until 2025— as an area for development, it did identify the adjacent parcel of land with the trails as a possible location for office space or a hotel.
"It's only a recommendation," said RDU spokesperson Mindy Hamlin. "We have not made any plans. We wanted to allow ourselves flexibility in the future, if and when we were to look at developing."
But many of the park's stakeholders are suspicious. "Triangle Off-Road Cyclists and the park's manager were worried that because of the recent ULI assessment and the non-signing of the lease, RDU was seriously considering development of the property," said TORC chairman David Houskeeper.
Late last month, TORC sent out a petition urging people to sign and lobby city leaders and the Airport Authority's board members to forgo any plans to develop the land with the trails. As of last week, the petition had more than 1,700 signatures. A chief complaint is that "while the [ULI] study suggested it was inclusive of the community at large as a stakeholder in the development of these lands, it doesn't list us (the community) under "Key Partners and Stakeholders," the petition's website, www.savethecrab.org, states.
The ULI brought in a panel of seven experts from across the country (none were from North Carolina) "to address land owned by the airport that is not designated" and "to identify any long-term revenue to the airport authority that complements the operation of the airport," according to the report. Over five days, the panelists studied the region and spoke with 80 community leaders and elected officials before they made several recommendations in a report to the RDU Airport Authority, including the one to redevelop the trails.
The ULI has produced advisory reports to cities across the country and all over the world. And, although the Federal Aviation Administration has prompted airports across the nation to seek revenue sources beyond ticket sales, RDU Airport appears to be the only airport in the country that has commissioned the ULI for advisory services, according to a list on the ULI's website.
"The ULI report is part of an ecosystem to make the airport more user-friendly," said the RDU Airport Authority's board secretary, Farad Ali of Durham. "They made recommendations, we looked at them briefly and they went home. We have not made any plans with those recommendations."
But there is the question of whether RDU, which generates an annual $8 billion economic impact to the Triangle, needs to generate additional income.
According to the RDU Airport Authority's financial statements, total operating revenues for the airport have been increasing steadily since 2004, where they were around $67 million. In 2013, total operating revenues were more than $98 million, a 4 percent increase over the previous year. The cost of operations however, has cut into its net position—assets minus liabilities—since 2010. But RDU had a net position of $420 million last year, an increase of more than 30 percent over 2004.
The airport just completed a $68 million terminal modernization project this year and it opened a second terminal in 2008. Ali says the airport's "major focus" now is "developing international flights to add economic value to our community."
RDU spokesperson Hamlin said it is too early to say what a possible new lease agreement could look like, but she said if the Airport Authority—a quasi-governmental body— was to move toward developing the land, the board would hold a public hearing to solicit input. However, there is currently no protocol in place for this.
Houskeeper and Lake Crabtree County Park Manager Drew Cade say it is their understanding that the Airport Authority is negotiating with Wake County to craft a modified lease.
"They want a master plan to give RDU flexibility to look at options," Cade said. "A lease is not a stranglehold on land and we always knew the threat was there with the five-year window."
The RDU Cruising Altitude blog post states that although Lake Crabtree County Park itself is in no danger of being developed, the Airport Authority "will continue to study other parcels, including the area adjacent to the park, as part of our future airport development."
1400 Aviation Parkway, Morrisville
• Park opened in 1988, with 70 acres of land; leased by Wake County from RDU until 2025; includes 520-acre flood-control lake
• Trails opened in 1994, with 149 additional acres of land; leased by Wake County from RDU in 5-year increments, until December 2013
• 1,500 people use the 9-mile network of trails for mountain biking, hiking, jogging per week
• Park features include fishing, boating/sailing, picnicking, scouting, nature study
• Comments? The park manager is Drew Cade, 919-460-3396
This article appeared in print with the headline "Turbulence ahead"