Umstead Coalition v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., COA20-129

Docket NºNo. COA20-129
Citation853 S.E.2d 742
Case DateDecember 15, 2020
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

Nigle B. Barrow, Jr., Raleigh, and Mattox Law Firm, by Isabel Worthy Mattox, Raleigh, and Matthew J. Carpenter, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan, L.L.P., Raleigh, by J. Mitchell Armbruster and Steven M. Sartorio, and Hedrick, Gardner, Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP, Raleigh, by Patricia P. Shields, for defendants-appellees.

Heidgerd & Edwards, LLP, by Eric D. Edwards and C.D. Heidgerd, Raleigh, and Ron Sutherland, for amicus Wild Earth Society, Inc.


Factual and Procedural Background

The Umstead Coalition, Randal L. Dunn, Jr., Tamara Grant Dunn, William Doucette, and TORC (a/k/a Triangle Off-Road Cyclists) (collectively, Plaintiffs) appeal an Order granting Summary Judgment to Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority (RDUAA) and Wake Stone Corporation (Wake Stone) (collectively, Defendants) and denying Plaintiffsrequest for a Preliminary Injunction related to RDUAA's lease of airport real property known as the Odd Fellows Tract to Wake Stone for a gravel mine. Relevant to this appeal, the Record before us tends to show the following:

The Umstead Coalition is a North Carolina nonprofit corporation dedicated to the appreciation, use, and preservation of the William B. Umstead State Park abutting the Odd Fellows Tract. Randal and Tamara Dunn (Dunns) are Wake County residents and live on property adjacent to the Odd Fellows Tract. William Doucette is a Wake County resident and Umstead Coalition member. TORC is a North Carolina nonprofit corporation seeking to establish and maintain mountain biking trails in the Triangle region to promote responsible mountain biking and ensure its future.

The North Carolina General Assembly chartered RDUAA in 1939 through a public-local law. An Act Enabling the City of Raleigh, the City of Durham, the County of Durham, and the County of Wake, to Jointly Establish an Airport and Providing for the Maintenance of a Joint Airport by said Cities and Counties, 1939 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 168 (Charter). The Charter allows the cities of Raleigh and Durham, and the counties of Wake and Durham (Governing Bodies), to jointly acquire land suitable for "airports or landing fields[.]" Id. §§ 2-5. The Charter instructs the Governing Bodies to elect a Board of Directors (the Board) for RDUAA—with each of the Governing Bodies appointing an equal number of directors. Id. §§ 5-6. The Charter also required the Board to "act in an administrative capacity" and to have "the authority to control, lease, maintain, improve, operate, and regulate the joint airport or landing field." The Board was vested with "complete authority over any airport or landing field jointly acquired" by the Governing Bodies. Id. § 7. As a public-local law, the Charter only applied to the Governing Bodies. Id. § 8 ("This Act shall apply only to the City of Raleigh, City of Durham, County of Durham, and the County of Wake.").

During World War II, the federal government took ownership of the airport property administered by RDUAA. In 1946, Congress enacted the Federal Airport Act requiring any airport receiving federal funding to abide by federal aviation laws and regulations. Pub. L. 79-377, 60 Stat. 170 (1946), (later codified at 49 U.S.C. ch. 471). In 1947, the federal government executed a deed granting the airport land back to RDUAA subject to certain conditions subsequent and the right for the federal government to reenter in the event those conditions subsequent occurred.

In the ensuing decades, the General Assembly amended RDUAA's Charter and expanded the Board's authority in each successive iteration. In 1955, the General Assembly specifically added language giving the Board authority:

To lease (without the joinder in the lease agreements of the [Governing Bodies]) for a term not to exceed 15 years, and for purposes not inconsistent with the grants and agreements under which the said airport is held by said owning municipalities, real or personal property under the supervision of or administered by the said Authority.

1955 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 1096 § 1. This amendment also vested the Board with the authority to "operate, own, control, regulate, lease or grant" the right to operate "restaurants, apartments, hotels, motels, agricultural fairs, tracks, motion picture shows, cafes, soda fountains, or other businesses, amusements or concessions ... as may appear to said Authority advantageous or conducive to the development of said airport" for a term not to exceed fifteen years. Id. The amendment granted RDUAA the authority to erect buildings and facilities, borrow money, enter contracts, and expend funds—received from fees and rents from the operation of the above operations—for airport purposes. Id.

In 1957, the General Assembly further expanded RDUAA's authority to include "[i]n addition to all other rights and powers herein conferred" the "powers granted political subdivisions under the Model Airport Zoning Act contained within Article 4," within Chapter 63 of the General Statutes1 , and "by the terms of Article 6, Chapter 63 ... concerning public airports and related facilities." 1957 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 455 § 2. Then in 1959, the General Assembly reiterated and expanded RDUAA's authority to lease real or personal property under its administration, without joining the Governing Bodies, for terms not to exceed forty years. 1959 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 755 § 1. The 1959 amendment also reaffirmed RDUAA's authority to "own, control, regulate, lease or grant to others the right to operate ... restaurants, apartments, hotels, motels, agricultural fairs, tracks, motion picture shows, cafes, soda fountains, or other businesses, amusements or concessions" RDUAA deemed advantageous or conducive to airport development for terms not to exceed forty years. Id.

Since its creation, RDUAA has acquired land surrounding the airport pursuant to the Charter. Specific to this case, the Governing Bodies and RDUAA acquired real estate known as the Odd Fellows Tract in separate conveyances during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979, the General Assembly again amended RDUAA's Charter to grant RDUAA the authority to bring condemnation actions under its own name without joining the Governing Bodies. 1979 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 666 § 2.

In September of 2017, RDUAA issued a request for land lease proposals (RFP) to lease three tracts of land RDUAA controlled, including the Odd Fellows Tract. On 9 October 2017, the Conservation Fund submitted a proposal, including a lease-to-purchase proposal for the Old Fellows Tract—with a term of forty years at $12,000 per year. Wake Stone also submitted a proposal to lease the Odd Fellows Tract. On 19 October 2017, RDUAA voted to reject all proposals to lease the Odd Fellows Tract. On 27 February 2019, approximately fifteen months later, RDUAA sent a Notice of Special Meeting of the Board, via email, to be held on 1 March 2019. The Special Meeting Notice announced the Board would consider a proposal for a twenty-five-year lease with Wake Stone to operate a gravel mine on the Odd Fellows Tract. Id. The Record indicates RDUAA and Wake Stone negotiated this lease agreement in private during the fifteen-month gap between the Board's rejection of the original RFP proposals and the Special Meeting. At the 1 March meeting, the Board announced it would discuss the lease—without public comment as the meeting was not a public hearing—and vote on the lease. The Board, with one abstention, unanimously voted to approve the lease. That same day, consistent with the Board's vote, RDUAA and Wake Stone executed an agreement for a mineral lease on the Odd Fellows Tract for a term of twenty-five years—with RDUAA to receive 5.5% of Wake Stone's annual net sales from the gravel mine.

On 12 March 2019, Plaintiffs filed a Verified Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief in Wake County Superior Court alleging: (1) RDUAA exceeded its authority and violated the Open Meetings Law by executing the lease without the Governing Bodies’ approval; and (2) RDUAA violated state and federal law by approving the lease without required FAA approvals. Plaintiffs also filed Motions for a Temporary Restraining Order and a Preliminary Injunction. Plaintiffs argued Defendants’ lease violated N.C. Gen. Stat. § 63-56(f), which generally applies to regulate the governing boards of airports jointly operated by two or more municipalities. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 63-56 (2019). Plaintiffs contended this statute requires jointly operated municipal airport boards to obtain approval from the governing bodies prior to leasing land for non-aeronautic uses. Plaintiffs also argued the lease violated N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-272 requiring municipalities to follow certain procedures for the extended-term lease of real property. Finally, Plaintiffs argued RDUAA violated North Carolina's Open Meetings Law, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-318.9 et seq. , governing procedures for conducting public meetings and hearings.

On 17 April 2019, RDUAA filed an Answer and a Counterclaim specifically against TORC alleging TORC, "through its members and agents," was trespassing on RDUAA property. Wake Stone filed its Answer on 20 May 2019. With the trial court's leave, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Verified Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief on 24 July 2019. The Amended Complaint added an allegation RDUAA violated state and federal law by approving the lease without FAA approval, and its 2017 RFP by conducting subsequent private negotiations. RDUAA and Wake Stone filed new Motions to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment on 7 August 2019. Plaintiffs filed a new Motion for Partial Summary Judgment that same day. RDUAA filed an Answer to Plaintiffs...

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