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Fence at Umstead would be “permanent eyesore,” says NC Parks to RDU Airport Authority

The proposed fence would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, shown at the bottom of the map. Airport officials contend the fence is necessary to keep trespassers off nearby RDU property — land that has been leased to a quarry company for a controversial stone mine. (Map: NC Parks)

The RDU Airport Authority today delayed a vote on an 8-foot high, 8.3-mile fence that would cut through parts of Umstead Park, after meeting with state parks officials who have serious reservations about the project.

The Authority has proposed building the security fence, which would be topped with three rows of barbed wire.

It would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, bisecting it in two places. The trail  is used by tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists and equestrians every year. The fence’s purpose is to keep trespassers off airport property, which intersects with the park.

Bill Sandifer, the Authority’s chief operating officer, told the board that the airport would be seeking a “compromise” to the fence.

“There’s more conversation to be had,” Sandifer said. “We’re taking a short pause. But the fence isn’t going away. We have needs on that side of the airport.”

However, the fence is clearly unpopular not only with park lovers — Umstead is one of the state’s most popular park destinations — but also state officials, who were frank about their opposition to the project.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, D. Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which is over the parks system, told the Airport Authority that the proposed fence would create “a permanent eyesore and marring the look and ‘feel’ of the park.”

The proposed fence also “would greatly harm a fundamental purpose of the park, namely to provide public access to a natural setting for people to enjoy nature and improve their physical and mental health,” Wilson wrote. It would also hurt water quality and wildlife habitats.

The fence would cross four large streams, 19 small streams and 29 temporary streams or ditches. “It would damage stream banks, wetlands, and water quality downstream in Umstead Park,” Wilson wrote. It would also “block movements of wildlife, effectively trapping them between airport fences.”

The proposed fence perimeter Map: RDU

To accommodate the fence, RDU would clear cut forested areas and ecological valuable understory for 15 feet on either side of the fence, for a total of 30 feet along the length of the barrier.

The fenced area is also part of a larger 105-acre tract the airport has leased to Wake Stone for a controversial quarry.

Sandifer has justified the need for the fence by saying trespassers are creating legal liabilities for the airport. In addition, Sandifer alleged that trespassers have damaged stream and riparian buffers — 16.5 miles, according to the airport. The airport’s engineering and environmental consultants estimated it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to repair the damage.

Policy Watch has requested documents showing the extent of the damage and how the costs was calculated.

The Reedy Creek Trail predates the airport and has been part of Umstead Park for 85 years, said Umstead Coalition member Jean Spooner, who opposes the fence and the rock quarry that would be built adjacent to it. The airport over time has expanded its land holdings and infringed on the trail, not the other way around, Spooner said.

“Every park map since the airport was built shows that the trail goes into the airport property,” Spooner said. “We’ve had two major  projects to improve that trail. It’s no secret that it’s there. We didn’t move the trail.” 

Wilson wrote that it would be far too expensive for State Parks to move the Reedy Creek trail, but offered several alternatives to a fence for further discussion. These include hiring additional park rangers, at airport expense, although the cost, Wilson said, would be less than the $2 million to build a fence.

“We believe that enhanced law enforcement presence, coupled with strong public communication alerting bikers that citations will be issued to those illegally accessing RDU property, can serve as an effective deterrent,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson suggested the department could also work with RDU and state and federal agencies to buy or lease nearby 151-acre airport property, known as the “286 tract” and to add it to the park. Federal law prohibits RDU from selling the land that is used for aeronautical use, but it can lease it. RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

Airport spokeswoman Crystal Feldman issued a statement saying RDU is seeking a third party to lease 151 acres of land for mountain biking – “a proposal originally included in RDU’s Vision 2040 master plan.”

The Airport Authority is already under public scrutiny for leasing other nearby land to a quarry company, and the fence has further soured some members of the public on the airport’s operations. “This degradation of the visitor experience would likely create among trail users an ongoing negative impression of the airport,” Wilson wrote.

This post has been updated to clarify that RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

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