Why is the Quarry Lease Such a Big Deal?

Umstead Dogs w label



Russ Stephenson 

Below are comments about why this issue has become such a big deal. My full statement opposing the RDU quarry lease is here: https://www.russforraleigh.com/why_i_oppose_the_rdu_quarry


While I cannot discuss Raleigh City Council’s closed session deliberations about the RDU quarry lease, in my conversations with well-informed stakeholders it is clear that Raleigh does have standing to intervene against the quarry lease and does have a reasonable expectation of prevailing against the quarry lease. 

The only two groups who insist the city has no right to intervene are (1) the Airport Authority attorneys and (2) those with personal, political or financial reasons for not wanting Raleigh to intervene. 


No one disputes the enormous environmental destruction of a 100 acre quarry. Likewise, no one disputes it will be impossible to undo environmental damage caused by the quarry or the long term negative impacts the quarry will have on Umstead State Park. 

In addition, the City of Raleigh’s environmental experts say that the Authority’s recent attempt to pass legislation weakening the Neuse Buffer Rules within the airport property would have a significant negative effect on our environment, especially our water quality. This represents a disturbing pattern of anti-environmental actions against land owned by Raleigh citizens and three other local governments, and suggests that more anti-environmental actions may be expected.


The quarry lease has become an important topic ONLY to the extent that irreparable damage would needlessly be done to Umstead State Park for all time. 

In all my years on Council, there has never been such a thoughtless and misguided attack on our environment as this. If ever there was a preventable environmental disaster in our backyards that was worth fighting against - THIS IS IT. 

The way this has become a political wedge issue is via the campaign of social media counterattacks, designed to deflect from the quarry’s certain and lasting environmental destruction, in order to give cover to those with personal, political or financial reasons for not wanting Raleigh to intervene. 


My first desire is still the same as it was in our March 5th Council motion: to pause the quarry lease and enter into good faith conversations toward an outcome that is good for the airport and good for the environment. I am optimistic the Raleigh City Council will soon support the first option. If negotiations fail, I hope Council will stand up for the long-term environmental interests of our community in addition to the success of the airport.

Russ Stephenson

Raleigh City Councilor At-Large, LEED Accredited Architect, Sierra Club Life Member


Why I Oppose the RDU Quarry

Umstead - Long Term


Here’s Why I Oppose the Quarry Deal

I am one of the four Raleigh Councilors who voted to pause the quarry deal on March 5th. I also spoke at the Umstead Rally on July 27th against the deal struck by the RDU Airport Authority and the quarry company. I'd like to negotiate an outcome that works for the Airport Authority and protects our environmental interests, but so far, Council hasn’t been able to muster the five votes needed to even open that conversation. Meanwhile, the Airport Authority has doubled down with new efforts to weaken the Neuse Buffer Rules — rules which safeguard our region’s water quality.


Ellen_in_Umstead_narrow.jpgIt’s important to know that the airport property has four owners, including the City of Raleigh, Wake County, Durham County and the City of Durham.

There is a huge legal question whether the RDU Authority can enter into a lease of this kind without prior approval of the four owners. The Authority, of course, has the right to take actions that impact airport operations — they don’t need our approval for that. But this is a deal for land we own that the Authority has decided they DO NOT need for airport operations, now or in the future. Further, it’s a “lease” that will result in the destruction of our property.

A quarry, by definition, will remove the property to a depth of up to 400 feet. To me, it’s not a lease. It’s a sale — truckload by truckload.

Ultimately, the legal question will be decided by the courts. The Umstead Coalition, with whom I’m working, has filed suit. If negotiations are not possible, City Council could join that suit, or we could file one of our own. Either course will require a majority vote of Council. So far, the Council is split 4-4, with four of us ready to take action and four, so far, not ready.

UMSTEAD_LICHEN.jpgEnvironmental Stewardship

Beyond the legal issue, however, is the paramount issue of environmental stewardship. The property in question is 105 acres of forested land immediately adjacent to Umstead State Park. It is an invaluable asset to our region, and its preservation is important to protect our water quality in Crabtree Creek, which runs alongside of it, and in the Neuse River Basin. It’s also vital to protecting the natural habitat of the state park itself.

In short, destroying the land, which a quarry will do, will have far-reaching negative impacts on our environment across Wake County and beyond.

The RDU Authority made the deal, according to its members, because they need money. The quarry operator offered a share of the quarry receipts. Estimates of the value of the Airport’s share range from $8 million to $25 million. The money will be received over a 25-year period, or longer. (The 25-year lease may be extended to 35 years.) In any event, most of the payments to the Airport will be years in the future.

A Better Deal For All

The Airport is a tremendous asset to our region and an economic engine of unquestioned importance. If it needs money, then money must be found. Conservation groups have offered to help. The Conservation Fund, a national environmental organization, offered to buy the 105-acre forest tract for $6.4 million up-front, an offer that compares favorably to receiving $8-25 million over two to three decades of quarrying. The four owners could’ve been asked for contributions, but the Airport Authority acted without public input and without consulting the owners.
Russ at Umstead RallyI’m determined to do whatever I can to convince the Airport Authority to reconsider its action, terminate the quarry deal and protect this vital environmental resource for generations to come.
Environmentalism is long-term. When it’s butts up against short-term financial considerations, that’s where the trouble begins. In this situation, the case for environmental protection is clear, and the money considerations are meager. Let’s Stop the RDU Quarry.

Russ Stephenson
Raleigh City Councilor At-Large, LEED Accredited Architect, Sierra Club Life Member


Governing To Serve All Citizens

NCGA_redistricting_public_comment_session.sm.jpgThe NC Legislature just released new maps on how they envision re-drawing districts in the state. Below are the comments I submitted on the proposed 2017 Redistricting Plans:

Good afternoon my name is Russ Stephenson. I have been a Raleigh City Councilor for the past 12 years.  When Council districts are updated, our staff selects the boundaries based on compactness and equal geographic distribution. 

It is a non-partisan redistricting process that leads - as you might expect - to non-partisan decision making. What that means is that our Council decisions serve all the citizens of Raleigh equally, rather than favoring one partisan base or the other. 


In conclusion, I recommend you adopt a non-partisan redistricting process in order to better serve all the citizens of North Carolina.




More Affordable Housing for Raleigh

In the current economic recovery, incomes for many US citizens have not kept pace with the rising cost of living and the gap is getting wider. In growing urban areas like Raleigh1 and across the country, the gap between stagnant wages and rising housing costs is magnified even more. 

WRAL---affordable-housing-screen.jpgThe City of Raleigh has responded to declining housing affordability by developing updated affordable housing policies and significant new and reliable funding ($5.9M / year) to triple the production and retention of affordable housing over previous years. The City has also increased the supply of forgivable rehab loans to qualifying homeowners.  But without a method to estimate lost affordable units, we don't know if we are gaining or losing.

While the growing gap between wages and the cost of living is often driven by policies outside Raleigh, the City has a responsibility to periodically review and update our policies and programs to ensure we are doing the best we can to mitigate the impact of these changes on vulnerable populations and to ensure that the greatest number of citizens can continue to be healthy and productive members of our community.  Raleigh citizens' ability to realize their potential and contribute to our economy is directly related to their opportunities for sound basic education, health care, healthy food, employment, transportation and affordable housing that meets their daily needs.

houses1.jpgWhile this rising cost of housing is a citywide problem, it is being felt most strongly near downtown by those such as service and creative workers and by fixed income residents. The planned redevelopment of two privately owned senior apartments downtown to higher rents is a very visible example of the growing gap between incomes and housing costs, and illustrates the need for Council to take a closer look at how our affordable housing programs are working downtown and citywide. Where are the opportunities for improvement, and what specific actions should the City take to improve housing opportunities so that downtown seniors living on very low incomes and working families facing rising cost will have affordable housing choices that meet their daily needs? 

Initial List of Affordable Housing Issues for Consideration

Sir-walter-apartments-N_O-photo.jpg1.  Regarding the Wintershaven and Sir Walter Apartments residents downtown2: investigate what specific actions are underway or may need to be taken by the City and in cooperation with the County and non-profit 'housing navigators' to ensure that those seniors will continue to have affordable housing choices that meet their daily needs.

2.  Review progress of Raleigh's affordable housing plan including the following: publicizing our successes, identifying emerging challenges and best practices, investigating opportunities for increasing forgivable loans, use of Certificates of Participation funding for critical needs, and other opportunities for improvement that may be identified. 

3. Establish liaison with the Wake County Affordable Housing Task Force to ensure that City and County efforts are well coordinated3.  Learn about the County initiative to provide small surplus parcels to nonprofit affordable housing developers and learn about the County method for estimating lost affordable units, and then use that method to estimate Raleigh's lost units and establish Raleigh's net production goals 

4.  Consider modifying City policies to measure affordability by the combined cost of housing and transportation - as a more accurate measure of the costs of living for a given location. This will become even more meaningful as increased transit options become available. 

Tiny-Houses-Greensboro.jpg5.  Consider replacing Raleigh’s new zoning code (UDO) prohibition on affordable housing with performance standards tied to the Affordable Housing Plan criteria for location, Area Median Income (AMI) rent ranges and other factors. 

6.  Consider a density bonus program to support affordable housing funds or units, perhaps similar to the program being developed in Durham. 

7.  Consider zoning rule change that would allow micro dwelling units, perhaps similar to Greensboro's Tiny House initiative4.

8. Consider zoning rule text change to reduce or eliminate parking requirements for affordable units, especially near transit. 

Asheville-Incentive-Grant-project.jpg9.  Consider synthetic Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funding similar to Asheville5 and other alternative financing options for affordable units. (Note that while per-unit TIF funding is higher than tax credit funding, the TIF funding comes from new tax base that would not otherwise exist.) 

10.  Solicit additional input from Councilors, County Commissioners, the public, neighborhood leaders and affordable housing experts and advocates. Make it clear we are open to solutions.

Raleigh’s economic success creates the opportunity to share our prosperity more broadly. When more of our citizens can realize their potential and become both contributors and beneficiaries of our success, we all prosper.



1. http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/editorials/article163111133.html

2. Wintershaven tenant leases end mid-2018. Sir Walter Apartments leases end in 2020.

3. http://www.wral.com/wake-officials-seek-coordinated-response-to-affordable-housing-crisis/16830145/

4. http://www.greensboro.com/blogs/around_town/susan-ladd-tiny-houses-greensboro-provides-a-model-for-success/article_22779bda-f349-5c0a-89c7-5bb89447d537.html

5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwyUC-sCreE



Building Visionary Stewardship

Yesterday's front-page story in the News & Observer chronicles the next step in re-envisioning one of downtown Raleigh's most polluted streams.  What has been a neglected channel suitable only for flushing downtown's stormwater waste will become a valuable linear park.  The re-envisioned Pigeon House Branch will anchor the redevelopment of blighted industrial areas along its course. 


Charlotte uncovered their own forgotten Sugar Creek several years ago.  Now it is the most highly traveled bike-share greenway in all of Charlotte.









As Council's only LEED-Accredited professional (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the evolving Devereux Meadows transformation represents the philosophy that has always guided my Council work: For Raleigh to be healthy and prosperous in the long run, we must re-envision the relationship between natural and man-made systems. By planning future growth that transforms neglected and devalued natural systems like Pigeon House Branch, we create healthy environmental assets that add to our quality of life.

Moving Forward for Citizen Empowerment


Full house in support of Citizen Advisory Councils at the June 6th City Council meeting.


It was wonderful to see so many thoughtful and dedicated folks attend last night's City Council meeting to talk about citizen engagement and the Citizen Advisory Councils. We are at an exciting crossroads for Raleigh with the opportunity to build inclusive and effective two-way communication between the City and our communities. Let's do it right by utilizing all our citizens' talents and creating the best possible empowerment tools for Raleigh. Below is how I propose laying a solid foundation for that process:


Citywide Process for Improved Citizen Engagement and Empowerment

1. Statement of Purpose

For more than forty years, the Citizens Advisory Councils (CACs) have been Raleigh’s most important forum for citizens to participate directly in community affairs. City Council values the service that CACs provide to our community and wants to improve their effectiveness, with additional resources to increase citizen participation in all areas, including rezonings.

CAC improvements will be coordinated with a citywide facilitated process to improve citizen engagement and empowerment. That process is outlined below. 

2. Request For Qualifications (RFQ) Process

a. Engage RFQ facilitators who are highly qualified in the focus areas listed below to design one or more meetings to outline the principles, scope, schedule and deliverables of an RFQ for the Full Process described below. They would guide all aspects and design of meeting structure and agenda in order to promote trust in the process.

b. Develop a detailed consultant RFQ incorporating RFQ facilitator input and other stakeholder input in one or more public meetings. 

3. Full Consultant Process

Council will hire the highest quality consultant team, with nationally recognized skills in these focus areas: citizen engagement and empowerment, conflict resolution, social equity and parliamentary procedures. The consultant will undertake an authentic citywide citizen participation effort over the next 2+ years, incorporating the best local and national models, to develop citywide policies, structures and processes in these focus areas.  

Consideration of an advisory board or committee will occur after the Consultant’s citywide input and analysis task is completed. CAC improvements will enhance their effectiveness, with additional resources to increase citizen participation in all areas, including rezonings and be coordinated with a citywide facilitated process to improve citizen engagement and empowerment.

Listening to Citizen Voices




Thanks to the N&O for taking on the difficult task of finding common ground in today’s polarized debates. (May 16, N&O forum will focus on talking across the political divide’) While Raleigh has been the calm eye at the center of most political storms, the city experienced a bruising debate in 2007 over the lack of citizen involvement in park planning. The city listened and hired nationally-recognized experts in citizen engagement from NC State to train staff and redesign park planning to improve citizen involvement. Today, the Raleigh Parks Department is the model for engaging our citizens.

Council is now working to improve citizen engagement citywide. As before, there are strong opinions about the best way to proceed.  Fortunately, our success with parks offers a reliable path for reaching across the polarized divide. Let’s hire experts of the caliber that guided the Parks Department transformation, to step back, listen to citizen voices and focus on our shared values.  Let’s build trust in a new citywide vision that improves engagement and empowerment, incorporates the best new methods plus the time-tested ones, and gives voice to many new participants as well as those who have been our most engaged.

Citizen Engagement

Yesterday, the Raleigh City Council was presented with the Citizen Engagement Task Force’s recommendations for re-shaping the process by which Raleigh handles community-city dialog.

I’ve received a number of questions about my vote on the issue of creating a new Community Engagement Board (CEB), so I wanted to take a few moments to explain my rationale.

The short explanation is that my vote was contingent on the assurance that Council will select CEB candidates based on a process designed by nationally recognized consultants in authentic participation and social equity. This will ensure the CEB makeup is a legitimate and equitable reflection of Raleigh's economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values.  Here is why that is critically important:

Since their creation in the early 1970’s, Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) have been an invaluable asset for engaging citizens in neighborhood affairs and for communicating with City Council and city departments. However, due to various legacy issues, when Council created a Citizen Engagement Task Force (CETF) to recommend ways to update and improve citizen engagement, the Task Force decided it would be better to work around the CACs, rather than to renovate them. The most important Task Force recommendation is to create a new Council-appointed Citizen Engagement Board, responsible for developing a hierarchy of community engagement entities which would parallel, extend, and overlap traditional CAC functions. Unlike the autonomous CACs, the new entities would be governed by CEB rules.

For CAC advocates who are concerned about reduced autonomy and more layers of bureaucracy between citizens and their elected leaders, 2007 changes in how our Parks Department engages the community offers an important case study for how best to proceed. At the time, the department suffered from a complete lack of community trust. With the help of nationally-recognized citizen engagement and conflict resolution consultants at NC State, the new director, Diane Sauer, has turned the entire culture of the Parks Department around, making it now the model for community engagement within the city.

In order to build community trust, it is critical that this new CEB be a legitimate reflection of Raleigh's economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values .   As was done in the Parks Department, to achieve this, we need to bring in the best consultants for citizen engagement and social equity - such as Mary Lou Addor and Mickey Fearn of NC State University.  My concern was that if yesterday’s vote was deadlocked, it would create a vacuum in which the five votes needed to hire these community engagement professionals would be unlikely. Before voting for the proposal yesterday, I was assured that the consultants' first and most important job will be to identify a best-practice process for selecting CEB members that are a legitimate and equitable reflection of Raleigh's economic, social, and ethnic diversity and community values. If the CEB selection process doesn't proceed this way, I doubt there will be 5 votes to appoint CEB members and the entire process will stall.

Changing any organization's ingrained attitudes and processes is not easy, but the transformation of Raleigh’s Parks Department is proof that with these three elements: (1) the best professional guidance, (2) staff who are committed to citizen engagement and (3) a strong public will, it can be done.  The first step, before any other action on the CEB, must be to hire the professional consultants in citizen engagement and social equity.


Ensuring Affordable Housing

I was pleased this week to answer the questions below for Congregations for Social Justice, an advocacy and education group made up from 40 communities of faith and nonprofits throughout Raleigh.

1 - What is your vision for mixed-income neighborhoods and economic diversity across Raleigh?

The strength of a community is in its diversity. In these times of increasing economic inequality it is more important than ever to foster familial bonds of everyday communication and harmony. When I visit Pullen Park I am always struck by the many generations, incomes and ethnicities. Parents bring their children to a setting of diversity and communal enjoyment. Raleigh must continue striving to build that spirit of community and harmony in every day life across the city with more mixed income neighborhoods.

2 - What plans do you have to make this happen?

The first step is to increase public awareness of why diversity is so important to the success of our city.  That is why I have reached out to the Congregations for Social Justice to help lobby the City Council for a permanent Affordable Housing Advisory Board. That board can act as an independent source of advice to Council and City Staff in refining and implementing our new policy recommendations for affordable, mixed income and geographically diverse housing.

3 - What role will you play in increasing the number of affordable housing units in our city?

By the City Manager’s count, Raleigh has about 14,000 affordable units, but needs 40,000 units.  The city’s current average production rate is about 137 units per year.  On the day the city’s new Affordable Housing and Location policy documents were first presented to Council, my two fundamental questions were: (1) When will we set realistic production goals to meet our growing affordable housing needs and (2) When will we establish a reliable funding source to meet our production goals?

I will continue to work for the creation of a permanent Affordable Housing Advisory Board to help build support for affordable and mixed income housing production goals and reliable funding sources.

Discretion and the UDO

Traffic from development impacts neighborhoods, so it is critical that Council have discretion to consider traffic on rezoning, and not leave those decisions to unaccountable bureaucrats.

Raleigh's new UDO zoning rules are designed to promote infill redevelopment that maximizes street connections to the surrounding community.  While these are both good-planning principles, the UDO was designed to make those street connections mandatory, with no City Council discretion. There is another good-planning principle that I believe is more important than connectivity.  That is the recognition that every project is different, both in the impacts it generates and in the community setting into which it is placed. For that reason, I made the motion on April 7th to give Council discretion, as elected representatives of our citizens, in judging the vehicular impacts of a project, and deciding how those impacts should be borne by the surrounding community.

I repeated my call for this text change as part of my formally submitted list of 11 UDO Refinements on July 27.


At the August 4th meeting, one Councilor offered an amendment that would require a super-majority vote of Council to place any restrictions on rezoning street connections. That amendment was not accepted, but was sent along to the Planning Commission for review as a separate item. Both my street connection text change and the super-majority proposal are currently being reviewed by the Planning Commission.th. During this period, I worked with a land-use attorney who is a UDO expert and supports my text change effort.  Ultimately, he worked with city staff to develop the text change language that was presented to Council and approved on August 4th.

This street connection text change, along with the other 10 UDO Refinements I've submitted to Council and staff represent my work over the last several years as Council's resident UDO expert.  As an architect, urban design consultant and long-time chair of Council's Comprehensive Planning Committee, I understand the importance of getting these new UDO rules right - making sure they provide a predictable and equitable development process that yields quality growth and protects the quality of life of our citizens.

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