At the October 6 Raleigh City Council afternoon meeting, District E Councilor David Knight led a spurious, yet successful effort to destroy Azalea Falls, one of Raleigh’s designated National Historic sites. As usual, the development-driven Council majority voted 7 to 1 (David Cox being the lone dissenter) to perpetrate another environmental disaster in our community.
During the evening session, longtime Raleigh resident Richard Johnson delivered the following remarks to Council:
During your late August meeting, at-large councilor Nicole Stewart called herself and David Knight “professional environmentalists.” I thought she was being sarcastic, but then I realized she was serious. Like Donald Trump, who she campaigns, governs, and votes like, she must be using “alternative facts.”
Tonight I was planning to mention previous issues where these environmentalists dropped the ball – issues like the RDU Quarry, reappointments to the RDU Airport Authority, Shelly Lake, advocating for density everywhere without taking into consideration any negative impacts from not following the comp plan that outlines the best places for density.
But this afternoon with Knight’s leadership in the destruction of Azalea Falls, you really outdid yourselves. And Councilor Knight should be ashamed for how he mischaracterized the letter from The Umstead Coalition. He made it sound like they supported the rezoning, yet the very first thing the Umstead Coalition recommended in their letter was a “special study per the 2030 Comp Plan.”
Council votes for the end of Azalea Falls
Wait for the bulldozers and the heavy rains
But we’re not going to get a special study. So the jury is out as to whether clear cutting and mass grading the hillside overlooking Azalea Falls can be done and still preserve the state-designated natural heritage area. Council has offered no expert environmental data or assurances, so we’ll have to wait until the bulldozers and the heavy rains arrive.
Very bad location for Density
But the jury is NOT out about this being a terrible location for density. All of the data says this location will always be car dependent – miles away from transit and walkable destinations. All data says that when you put density in car-dependent locations like this, you create long-term negative impacts to our environment, and our quality of life.
Council votes contradict promises and plans
Many of you ran on promises of more equitable and environmentally sustainable growth, driven by solid data. But over and over again, your actions speak more loudly: in the real world of profit-driven development politics, your votes promote density anywhere developers ask for it, regardless of the threats of more air pollution, more toxic parking lot runoff, more road congestion, or more expensive and self- perpetuating road construction. Of course this is nice for Barnhill, Hanson Aggregates, Wake Stone, and the builders that support and bankroll your campaigns. Setting aside the risks you are taking with Azalea Falls, car-dependent upzonings like this one make our city worse, not better.
If the City would follow its Comp Plan and develop increased residential density in the urban core, on transit lines and in city-defined walkable growth centers, Raleigh would be able to meet its housing needs without adding new sprawl and more automobile dependency. And, in this specific location, you would, at the same time protect this local ecological wonder.
previous blogs: https://livableraleigh.com/tag/azalea-falls/
(This is the full version of the abbreviated op-ed published in the News and Observer on October 2, 2020)
Azalea Falls in West Raleigh
Azalea Falls is a hidden Raleigh gem that has recently been designated by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as being an ecological habitat of statewide significance, possessing “natural values justifying its recognition by the State as an outstanding part of the natural heritage of North Carolina”. Its importance to Raleigh is increased because of its environmentally sensitive location along Crabtree Creek and along the future Crabtree Creek Greenway that traverses the entire city of Raleigh. The Azalea Falls property abuts a 200+ acre parcel that will be donated to Raleigh in 2052 to complete the citywide greenway connection to Umstead State Park. The 10 acre Azalea Falls parcel is held in trust for the benefit of future Raleigh generations by the nonprofit City of Oaks Foundation and is the crown jewel of the emerald necklace of Raleigh’s finest natural ecological habitats.
But the destruction of Azalea Falls is actively being planned and could be finalized by the Raleigh City Council at their October 6 meeting, when Council is expected to vote on a dense 28 acre development project (upzoning Z-47-19) that would replace the steeply wooded hillsides overlooking the Falls with 4+ story apartments, parking lots and multi-story retaining walls. While the developers would have us believe they can safely clear cut the forest and mass grade the steep hillsides overlooking Azalea Falls, the State’s Natural Heritage Designation says the opposite: The Azalea Falls ecosystem depends on protecting the forested and aquatic ecological habitats on the steep hillsides overlooking and sheltering the Falls. No wooded hillsides – no Azalea Falls.
Council Seeks No Environmental Testimony
Over the course of several Council meetings, stewards of the Azalea Falls property have made it abundantly clear that approving the upzoning of the steeply wooded hillsides overlooking Azalea Falls for dense multi-family development would mean the end of Azalea Falls. In response, no Councilor has requested expert environmental testimony to rebut the State’s ecological findings.
Stormwater runoff from hillside clear cutting and mass grading
There is simply no way the upzoning applicant can guarantee that every significant rain event during the stripping, mass grading and construction on the steep hillsides will not send torrents of mud washing down the hillsides, killing the forest habitats, aquatic habitats and turning Azalea Falls and it’s stream bed into a sludge pit and an ecological dead zone.
What is Council Thinking?
So why does Council seem so determined to go ahead with this upzoning? Those close to the upzoning point to Mayor Baldwin’s drive to promote developer interests and her willingness to punish Councilors who stand in her way. Consequently, the few Councilors who have spoken about this upzoning justify the environmental destruction as they routinely do in upzoning cases: it’s all about increasing density – we have to build more so we can grow more.
Good Density versus Bad Density
Ok – we have to build to grow, but anywhere and everywhere? While the concept of limiting the impacts of unsustainable sprawl development is valid as a general principle, this Council, except for Councilor Cox, has simplistically transformed Raleigh’s Sustainable Growth Plan, which recommends density ONLY in locations near downtown, near transit and near walkable community centers, into a blanket justification for more density at practically ANY location requested, no matter how far from transit or how automobile-dependent the development will be, no matter the long-term detriments of more cars, more air pollution, more toxic parking lot runoff, more road congestion, more road widenings, more stormwater runoff and flooding or more clear cutting of environmentally valuable urban woodlands. For them, density justifies anything and everything – and this upzoning proves that point like no other upzoning could.
With a WalksScore.com rating of only 6 on a scale of 0-100, the Z-47-19 upzoning site at 4800 Duraleigh Rd is one of the worst imaginable locations for density in Raleigh: it is miles from the nearest transit line and miles to the nearest walkable shopping or working destination. The steep hillsides are the most difficult to build on and create the worst stormwater impacts, exacerbating the already expensive and extensive water pollution and flooding of Crabtree Creek and the Neuse River. And then to top it off, the dense development will mean the end of the pristine ecological gem Azalea Falls for all future generations.
A Better Way Forward
Forested hillside overlooking Azalea Falls that would be clear cut & mass graded
Azalea Falls and the steeply wooded slopes cradling it represent a special forest and aquatic habitat of statewide environmental importance to future Raleigh generations. In 2052 more than 200 acres of land connecting Azalea Falls to Umstead State Park will be donated to the City of Raleigh for parkland and will complete the Crabtree Creek Greenway, as it traverses the entire city of Raleigh. This is not the time for Council to be motivated by the insignificant short-term profits of the Z-47-19 parcel owner, one of the largest construction conglomerates in North America.
Instead, Council has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect one of Raleigh’s most precious environmental assets, a jewel in the emerald necklace of Raleigh’s environmental treasures. Simply buy the Z-47-19 parcel, tax valued at $1.7M, and add it to the 200+ acres that will ultimately be given to the City. Better still, work with land owner Leigh-Hanson to secure a tax-benefited charitable donation of the Z-47-19 parcel to an organization such as the Conservation Trust For North Carolina. Save Azalea Falls.
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Click the ‘Take Action’ image to ask City Council to Save Azalea Falls
Hillside Overlooking Azalea Falls
Azalea Falls was the subject of a prior post on this site. In it, we called on City Council to reject a developer’s application to up-zone a major portion of the property — allowing a high-density apartment project that would destroy not just that portion but the whole shebang.
Twice, Council has postponed a decision, at its meetings on Sept. 1 and Sept. 15. But the discussion Sept. 15 indicated that approval is imminent and likely to come in October.
Unless public opinion stops them.
Azalea Falls is an environmental jewel, designated officially by the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources as a Natural Heritage site of statewide ecological significance.
Part of the property — the portion along Crabtree Creek — is owned already by the nonprofit City of Oaks Foundation, whose mission is to preserve important environmental assets for the people of Raleigh.
If the up-zoning is rejected, the rest of the property — a steep hillside above the City of Oaks holding — could be acquired and preserved as well.
As it should be. (See below for the how.)
Here’s a link to the City of Oaks Foundation’s website, which shows Azalea Falls to be, as we say, a jewel.
Jewel or not, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin signaled her intention to press ahead with the up-zoning at the Sept. 15 meeting, calling on District A Councilor Patrick Buffkin to make the case for it.
Buffkin, an attorney, promptly took the developer’s side, trying to argue that a provision of the up-zoning request — in legal terms, a condition offered by the developer — would somehow protect the Falls even as the stripping and mass grading of the wooded hillsides that are integral to it proceeded. But it was not immediately apparent that this made any sense, so Buffkin resorted to cross-examining a citizen who disagreed with him.
That citizen happened to be Chris Heagarty, executive director of the City of Oaks Foundation.
Buffkin was insistent that stripping the trees from the hillside would not damage the site. Did Heagarty agree?
Heagarty did not agree, and he said so quietly, which caused Buffkin to push harder.
Buffkin (leaning in): Do you see any undue environmental harm resulting from this project going forward?
Heagarty (calmly): Councilor Buffkin, I honestly don’t have the answer you want to hear. But yes, I do think the project causes environmental harm. Any time you go in and take down rare native species, and destroy native habitats, it is going to have environmental impact.
Heagarty was simply stating what should be obvious to everyone on Council:
The steeply wooded hillsides above Azalea Falls are CRITICAL to Azalea Falls’ unique and exceptional forest ecology and aquatic habitat. The hillsides and the Falls, in other words, are one and the same!
[Think whether you’d still have a car if someone destroyed the engine and the transmission.]
Again, this is spelled out in the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources designation of the Falls’ ecological significance.
No wooded hillsides, no Azalea Falls.
Buffkin Plays Hardball
Finally, Buffkin resorted to the classic up-zoning threat, which goes like this: “If the developers don’t get their way, things could get much worse for you!”
We recall a now-retired Raleigh Planning Director who called this kind of development threat ‘the Darth Vader scenario.’
The threat here: If not allowed to strip the hillside for high-density development, the developer could choose to strip it anyway out of sheer destructiveness, dumping mud on the City of Oaks property below.
Which meant, to Buffkin, that the high-density development would have no “environmental impact.”
Once again, though, Heagarty wasn’t buying Buffkin’s premise.
“I have to be honest,” he said. “I can’t tell you that [the project] won’t have an environmental impact.”
Heagarty, in short, wasn’t giving cover to Buffkin, Baldwin and the rest of the Council majority, which seems determined nonetheless to allow this senseless destruction of a rare woodland oasis.
And what of the other Council members who brand themselves as environmentalists (we’re looking at you, Nicole Stewart and David Knight). They sat through the meetings in stony silence, unwilling even to utter the name ‘Azalea Falls,’ for fear of drawing Baldwin’s wrath.
A Better Way Forward
Azalea Falls and the steeply wooded slopes cradling it represent a special forest and aquatic habitat of statewide environmental importance to future Raleigh generations.
In 2052 more than 200 acres of land connecting Azalea Falls to Umstead State Park will be donated to the City of Raleigh for parkland — it’s now a quarry — and it will complete the Crabtree Creek Greenway across the entire city of Raleigh.
This is not the time for Council to be motivated by the insignificant short-term profits of the Z-47-19 parcel owner, which happens to be one of the largest construction conglomerates in North America. Instead, Council should look to protect one of Raleigh’s most precious environmental assets.
How? Simply buy the Z-47 parcel, tax valued at $1.7M, and add it to the 200 acres that will ultimately be given to the City. Better still, work with land owner Leigh Hanson to secure a tax-benefited charitable donation of the Z-47-19 parcel to an organization such as the Conservation Trust For North Carolina. At Council’s October 6 meeting: Save Azalea Falls.
As a candidate for City Council, David Knight campaigned on opposition to the RDU Quarry. He made his position clear in statements to both INDYWeek and the News & Observer.
To INDYWeek he said: INDYWeek Candidate Questionnaire – David Knight
INDYWeek’s Quarry Question and Candidate Knight’s Answer
To the News & Observer he said: N&O Candidate Questions – District E
N&O’s Quarry Question and Candidate Knight’s Answer
Note that in both position statements he says:
“given the chance on council I would vote for a park and against the quarry”.
Unfortunately he has been given at least two chances to make good on his campaign promises and has failed his constituents and his own convictions both times.
1 First Chance: On Tuesday evening, May 5th, during the Council’s public comment session, three citizens called in (it was a virtual meeting) to ask that the Council take a position in opposition to the Wake Stone mining permit and request that the state Department of Environmental Quality conduct a public hearing to take testimony pro and con. Councilman David Cox made a motion that Council do what the citizens asked: Oppose the permit, and request a hearing. Cox, of course, is an outspoken opponent of the quarry. Councilor Knight refused to support this motion. City Council Finds New and Novel Ways to Do Nothing About the RDU Quarry
2 Second Chance: On June 16, after the NCDEQ had already decided to conduct a public hearing, Councilor Stewart brought forth a formal statement for consideration by the council. Nowhere in this statement was there any mention of opposition to the quarry by the council. It simply asked the DEQ to do what they were already scheduled to do.
We, as a Council, therefore urge the Department of Environmental Quality and the Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources to hear and seriously consider the comments and concerns of these residents.
Note that Stewart’s statement only mentions the concerns of residents and not any concerns of the City Council. Councilor Knight, who now says he is actually opposed to the quarry, seconded Stewart’s motion noting that to him, it was important for the council to speak “as a body”. Of course, that meant speaking with no conviction and simply asking NCDEQ, NC Department of Environmental Quality, to do what they had already committed to doing. Councilor Cox stated he would NOT support the statement because of its lack of actual opposition to the quarry and voted against it. Knight could have also voted, like Cox, with the courage of his convictions. He declined to do so. The council speaks “as a body” not only with a unanimous vote, which they didn’t get here anyway, but with a majority vote. Speaking “as a body” should not mean watering your policies and resolutions down to a point where they say nothing of consequence so that everyone can feel comfortable getting on board.
When Knight ran out of chances to take official action as a City Councilor and thought it looked like he was going to be on the wrong side of history, he decided to be bold. He wrote a “sternly worded” letter in his capacity as a citizen. Of course this carries none of the weight that a resolution in opposition from the City Of Raleigh would carry since Raleigh is one of the four named owners on the deed to the land. The other three being Wake County, the City of Durham and Durham County.
On July 17, 2020, David Knight submitted that letter to NCDEQ, NC Department of Environmental Quality, voicing his opposition, as a citizen and not as a member of Raleigh City Council, to the RDU Quarry. In this letter he notes that he shares:
“the concern of thousands of Triangle citizens who have publicly voiced their opposition to the project”. Knight’s letter to NCDEQ
David Knight should be ashamed of himself. If this letter reflects his actual convictions on the quarry, then why did he vote against his own convictions and in favor of the “weak tea” statement approved by the Raleigh City Council? A statement that NEVER once mentioned opposition to the quarry by the council.
Is Knight’s job as the District E representative on City Council to vote to represent the desires of his constituents? Especially when he now claims in this letter that he agrees with his constituents?
Or, does he believe his job on City Council is to provide cover for Mayor Baldwin and Councilor Melton?
Six of the eight members of council (while Saige Martin was still a councilor) campaigned on their opposition to the quarry. The City Council had enough votes, based on those published campaign positions, to approve a strong statement in opposition to the quarry. As Knight says, to speak “as a body”. But, it would not have been a unanimous position and would have forced both Baldwin and Melton to vote against the statement since both of them favor the quarry.
In order to stop any embarrassment to Baldwin and Melton, Knight set his own convictions and the desires of his constituents aside and voted for the weak, non-opposition statement written by Nicole Stewart as a CYA (cover your ass) gift to Mayor Baldwin and Councilor Melton.
When asked why he was running for City Council, Knight’s response was because he wanted to get into politics. Not that he wanted to represent his constituents. Not that he wanted to help Raleigh move into the future. He just wanted to become a politician. Well, he has certainly attained his goal with this most political of moves, speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Now Knight’s constituents have many questions to ask themselves:
- Just how many of his other votes were taken against his own convictions simply to keep harmony with Baldwin on the council?
- What is Knight’s actual position? The one he cast in his official capacity as a City Councilor? Or, the one he claims in his personal letter?
- And, how much of this is related to the fact that Knight’s campaign was funded almost entirely by the development community? To the tune of 79% of his total.
Click on Chart for Developer Money Details
This blog post was submitted by Hwa Huang. Though he is a long-time member of the local Sierra Club Chapter and is actively working with the Umstead Coalition, the comments below are solely his, and not those of the Sierra Club or the Umstead Coalition.
Now is your chance to help save Umstead Park from a private quarry on public lands.
By now you must have heard about Wake Stone’s proposed quarry next to the Umstead State Park.
Despite the many overwhelming problems facing the city and nation today – the pandemic and the righteous protests against police violence among them – Wake Stone continues to keep pushing forward with their desire to have their quarry next to the state park. Frustrating as it is to have to spend time on this issue with so many others raging, Wake Stone remains relentless. Once again, this highlights Wake Stone’s lack of care for public well-being as they attempt to avoid public scrutiny.
We want them to know that we are still watching, but we still need your help, now more than ever! There are so many reasons why the proposed quarry will be awful for the state park because of the following impacts (but not limited to them):
- Polluted water, wetlands, and Neuse River Buffer
- Wake Stone is trying to avoid getting new industrial stormwater and air quality permits, incorrectly claiming they will not have new sources from their new proposed quarry
- Blasting noise and vibration in Umstead Park and nearby homes
- Impaired air quality, dust and non-road truck emissions
- Reduced safety at Umstead Park entrance to park due to conflicts with mining and logging trucks
- Inadequate reclamation plan concerning post-mining uses, especially in areas closest to the park
Here is how you can help us:
- Take a minute to take this survey, so that we can establish important data for the DEQ to understand just who they will be affecting if this quarry is to take place: https://forms.gle/tsk3HvZPxbPT2YpC6
- Take 10 seconds to register to speak at the public hearing on June 23, 2020, 6 PM. You should expect to have 2 minutes to talk about why the DEQ must reject Wake Stone’s permit application: https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=3IF2etC5mkSFw-zCbNftGeTQwlSeD1RIhOMcQI6ad6VUQjVROFJNNE9BMVlJM0I0RjdEVUtWUzRSQi4u&fbclid=IwAR0bKViHIqh4R8fTYTdCEdX53OqMDphrzq_-zzmyylECSKdWH7mLkIgVoTI Please register before noon on June 23 – the sooner, the better.
Do not worry about coming up with a script. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let the Umstead Coalition know you’ve signed up to speak, and they will reach out to you before the hearing date to work with you on what you will be saying on the big day.
This is likely the LAST chance for public comments to stop the quarry. The public will have little opportunity to comment if this permit is granted. State law gives mines and quarries “life of site” permits, meaning that in most cases, they are automatically renewed – without further public comment.1
[The Umstead Coalition’s lawsuit against the RDUAA “lease” with Wake Stone is still in the courts. Which means it’s in the hands of the lawyers and is NOT subject to any public comment.]
If you have any questions, please email at email@example.com
Thank you all for your attention, and we hope that Umstead State Park will continue to have your support.
- Sorg, L. 2019. RDU officials side with mining interests in clash over Umstead quarry. NC Policy Watch. [Website]. Retrieved from: http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2019/03/09/rdu-officials-side-with-mining-interests-in-clash-over-umstead-quarry/