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Why did RDU try to swap more than 300 acres with Umstead Park in 2015?

In 2015, attendance at North Carolina’s state parks was up. The park system was riding on a historic high, celebrating its centennial. The first state park had been created at Mount Mitchell in 1915. At an event at William B. Umstead State Park, then-Gov. Pat McCrory designated the first week of March “North Carolina State Parks Week.”

Then, out of nowhere came a bill to swap more than 300 acres between Umstead and Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

At one point, Senate Bill 486 blithely calls for 206 acres, the western chunk of Umstead Park closest to the airport — “Polygon F” on the map helpfully provided — to go to RDU.

Primary sponsors of Senate Bill 486 were John Alexander, Republican senator from Wake County, Andrew Brock, Republican senator from Mocksville, and Republican senator Tamara Barringer of Cary. Other sponsors were Democratic senator Ben Clark of Cumberland and Hoke counties, and Republican senator Bill Cook, representing the 1st district which includes Beaufort, Dare and other counties on the coast.

According to an N&O story from May 2015, it was Jeff Warren, an aide to Sen. Phil Berger, Republican Senate leader, who approached Raleigh-Durham airport CEO Mike Landguth about the land swap.

“According to documents provided by RDU, Warren valued the Blue Ridge parcels at $250,000 to $300,000 an acre – or $24.5 million in all,” the N&O wrote.

RDU said they wanted to swap the land so Lake Crabtree County Park and its proposed use for mountain bikers would be preserved.

Raleigh developer John Kane, who was a member of the RDU Airport Authority board, had discussed the proposal with Landguth, Warren and other state senators. Kane said to the N&O that the proposed swap was “a potential win-win for everybody.”

“Everybody,” that is, except for the park with which RDU was trying to swap land.

The Umstead Coalition, the nonprofit organization that preserves Umstead Park, registered its surprise at the announcement, with coalition Chairwoman Jean Spooner expressing concern at the proposal and the assumption that the land should go toward mountain bike trails.

“A better process would be to have a master planning process and an open forum,” Spooner said.

Senate Bill 486 eventually died in the legislature’s Rules committee.

Fast forward to 2019, and Kane, founder and CEO of real estate development company Kane Realty in Raleigh, had become chairman of the RDU board.

In March 2019, under his leadership, the board signed a lease amid overwhelming protests from park supporters and local residents for a rock quarry in the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract – for $24.5 million.

Wake Stone would have to pay RDU at least $8.5 million and an estimated $24 million in royalties over 35 years.

In 2015, Sig Hutchinson, a Wake County commissioner who has been heavily involved with the RDU-Umstead issue, said he was for the land swap proposal if it meant Lake Crabtree County Park was controlled by Wake County and mountain bike trails could be expanded.

Fast forward to 2019, and while other Wake County commissioners objected to the mining lease, saying they were never consulted, Hutchinson was quoted in The Independent Weekly as being in favor of the lease, because Wake Stone could give 68 acres to Umstead, and provide connection to mountain bike trails – that is, in 25 years when they have finished mining.

Kane Realty has been in a building boom since 2015. In June 2019, during the U.S. Women’s Soccer team’s successful World Cup run, it unveiled plans for “Downtown South,” a $2 billion development of a 20,000-seat stadium surrounded by high rises with 1.6 million square feet of office.

More recently, earlier this month, it submitted plans to remodel the JCPenney site at North Hills for five mixed-use, 12-story-tall buildings, according to the N&O.

Back in 2015, toward the start of Kane Realty’s building boom, the company was launching the “104 Dartmouth” project at North Hills, a 171-unit high rise of condominiums. According to the Triangle Business Journal in May 2015, Kane Realty got a $24.5 million loan from SunTrust Bank and $4.8 million in debt financing from Federal Capital Partners of Maryland.

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