“One vote,” Raleigh City Council member Kay Crowder told hundreds of residents rallying against a plan to add a second quarry outside Umstead State Park last weekend, is all we need to join the fight. And October 8 is “just around the corner.”
It’s not that simple, however.
The fight to stop the quarry—specifically, a lease agreement between the RDU Airport Authority and the Wake Stone Corporation that will allow the company to mine the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract for the next three decades—has been underway for years, ever since the idea was first proposed, and especially since the authority’s board unanimously approved the lease in March.
The Umstead Coalition and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists filed a lawsuit, arguing that because four local governments own the RDU Authority and thus own the Odd Fellows tract—which abuts Umstead State Park and has long been used by cyclists, albeit without the airport’s permission—they should get a say in what happens. The groups won a temporary restraining order, though it was symbolic; it allows exploratory drilling, which is all Wake Stone can do until it completes the years-long permitting process. A court hearing is expected in September.
The “one vote” to which Crowder was referring was the council’s 4–4 split in March to send RDU a letter asking the authority board to reconsider the deal.
But that, too, would have been symbolic: It wouldn’t have been binding, and it was unlikely to change any minds. The airport says it needs the $24 million that the lease would generate to fund infrastructure repairs and a new runway. (The Umstead Coalition argues that the deal will only net about $8 million while destroying the land’s recreational possibilities.)
The only thing the city could do with a fifth vote is to sue.
No one on the council has proposed legal action, nor have any other owners of the airport—Wake County, Durham County, and the city of Durham—tried to stop the lease. In fact, citing a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration, Jessica Holmes, who chairs the Wake County Board of Commissioners, says that while she’s “very concerned about the environmental impact of the quarry,” the county “does not have a vote on whether the land lease moves forward. That is a decision that rests solely” with the airport authority.
Durham doesn’t plan to jump into the lawsuit, says Mayor Steve Schewel, but would consider it if the Raleigh City Council and Wake County Commissioners took the lead. And while Raleigh getting in on the legal action might be helpful, it’s not necessary, says Jean Spooner, who chairs the Umstead Coalition.“We don’t need them. We have a strong case on our own.”
Yet some council members, facing tough reelection bids, are nonetheless arguing that they can make a difference.
“If we had one more vote, we could vote to join the lawsuit that is already taking place, or we could file our own lawsuit,” says council member Stef Mendell. “And I think we would have a better chance of having legal standing since we’re one of the four owners.”
Raleigh city attorney Robin Tatum Currin declined to answer the INDY’s questions on the matter, citing attorney-client privilege and potential litigation.
Mendell and the other council members who attended the Umstead Coalition’s rally last week—Crowder, Russ Stephenson, and David Cox—are facing opponents who have raised more money in the first half of 2019.
That’s led critics, even those skeptical of the lease itself, to argue that their campaign against the quarry is politically motivated.
“It’s taking something that a lot of people very seriously care about and using it as a political gimmick,” says Harry Johnson, former political chair of the North Carolina Sierra Club. “These are councilors who have done little to nothing to really push the city to implement a clean energy standard. It’s very frustrating to see real issues compressed into one yes-or-no litmus test and to see that used as a checkbox for performative environmentalism.”
Cox may call himself an environmentalist, Johnson says, but he also tried to reroute sewer line through federally protected wetlands after a constituent complained about the city digging on her property. (He then attempted to get a city employee disciplined when he didn’t get his way, as the INDY previously reported.)
You can oppose the quarry and oppose political gamesmanship, says council member Nicole Stewart, the development director for the North Carolina Conservation Network. She voted against sending the letter in March.
“The Raleigh City Council has no ability to singlehandedly stop the quarry, no matter how many votes my colleagues say they have or need. To say or promise otherwise is false,” Stewart says. “My job has given me the experience and insights beyond a poll-tested talking point. The ongoing lawsuit brought by the Umstead Coalition will continue to be the most efficient avenue to fight the quarry, and I am watching it closely.”
NOTE: The story has been updated to correct a quote from Kay Crowder.
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.
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