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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Bratton family’s quarry plans proceed amid dogged opposition

Since 1982, Raleigh’s Wake Stone Corp. has pulled 55 million tons of rock from its quarry adjacent to Umstead State Park and near Raleigh Durham International Airport in western Wake County.

Over those four decades, the park’s visitor count has tripled to an estimated 2 million, while the airport has had dramatic growth as the Triangle metro area’s population soared to more than 2.2 million.

Quarries don’t last forever. So in 2016, Wake Stone started planning a similar operation on a nearby, 105-acre plot owned by RDU. It signed a lease with the airport authority in 2019, and the new quarry is expected to start producing aggregates for road construction and other purposes in about two or three years, Wake Stone President Sam Bratton says. Site development will likely start this summer, and the company expects to extract about 35 million tons of rock over the next 25 or 30 years.

That’s the basic story of a fairly routine business expansion. Except this one ignited a protracted outcry by environmentalists and park enthusiasts, who’ve worked to block the new quarry over the past seven years. Their advocacy led state regulators to initially deny Wake Stone’s permit in 2022. Opponents have received support from N.C. politicians, including Gov. Roy Cooper, who last fall criticized the project, citing his support for “protecting public land and water resources.”

Attorney General Josh Stein, the likely Democratic nominee for governor in November, has also spoken against Wake Stone’s plan.

 The lengthy controversy cost Wake Stone more than $1 million in what Bratton terms an “abuse of the legal system.” He says that view was vindicated last year when Administrative Law Judge Donald van der Vaart ordered the state to grant the mining permit and to pay Wake Stone $500,000 to cover its legal fees. The judge concluded that the state’s initial denial was based on faulty math and improper criteria.

In a settlement disclosed last November, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality agreed to abandon its opposition to Wake Stone’s permit. That means the Attorney General’s office, led by Stein, no longer opposes the effort.

 “The last thing we want to do is damage Umstead Park,” Bratton says. “We’ve been operating adjacent to the park for 42 years, and now we’re going to be a problem?” Sound studies show that noise from Interstate 40 traffic and RDU jets are much more significant for park visitors than Wake Stone’s quarry, he says. “Not liking mining is not a legal criteria,” he adds, noting that RDU’s master plan approved in 2016 changed the tract’s land-use to “industrial/quarry.”

While Wake Stone is confident about its project schedule, opponent Jean Spooner says the controversy “is nowhere close to being done.” A longtime extension professor at N.C. State University, where she earned a doctorate in soil science, she leads the Umstead Coalition nonprofit, which has organized opposition to the quarry expansion.

 The coalition wants a judge to rule that Wake Stone’s existing quarry should close in 2031, which is 50 years after its initial permit award. It also seeks a ruling that would force Wake Stone to expand buffer areas around the new quarry. Wake Stone
rejects those objections and doesn’t expect them to slow its project, though Spooner pledges that the coalition will appeal adverse rulings.

Airport’s Key Role

Wake Stone’s expansion could not have happened without its lease with RDU, which is run by an authority made up of members appointed by Raleigh, Durham and Wake and Durham counties. Local business leaders have traditionally comprised the board, but the increasingly progressive tilt of Triangle elected officials has changed its makeup to include members more aligned with environmental groups.

The current board “probably wouldn’t vote to approve the lease,” Bratton says. But the contract has been in force for two years and “gives the RDU authority little chance to change the lease,” Spooner says.

 The coalition remains disappointed with the airport board’s decision, particularly because the nonprofit offered $6.4 million to take control of the land, Spooner says. “We offered several paths forward that had more money and were better for the public,” she says. It also supported an effort that has sparked 11,000 public comments opposing the
airport’s plan.

 The Umstead Coalition had revenue of $207,000 in 2019 and $178,000 in 2020, mostly from membership fees and contributions, according to its 2020 tax filing, the last one that has been made public.

Bratton notes that the Federal Aviation Authority prohibits RDU from selling the property and that Wake Stone’s offer was the most lucrative option for the airport, with a potential for as much as $24 million in royalties.

John Bratton Jr. Founder, Wake Stone Corp.

The CEO defines Wake Stone as an entrepreneurial family business. “My dad (John Bratton) started it in 1970 when I was 6 years old, my brother Ted was 15, and brother Johnny was 23 or 24,” he says. “His vision was to get one operation going that would help him pay to educate his kids.”

The company now has a third generation coming along to continue traditions, including never laying off any workers. “The idea of selling to a company that will do a lot of cost cutting and things that aren’t paternalistic is not something we are interested in,” Bratton adds.

Wake Stone operates four quarries in North Carolina and one in South Carolina. The company employs about 200 workers. Raleigh is also the headquarters of Martin Marietta Materials, a publicly traded aggregates producer with a market value of

$33 billion. John Bratton worked for Martin Marietta for25 years before starting Wake Stone.

The Brattons have been politically active. Sam is a registered independent who has been on the N.C. Mining Commission since 2015 and is now vice chair. His brothers are former commission members.

“I believe in government regulation to stop industry from polluting and to keep industry safe,” he says.

But he also says growth requires continued investment by aggregates companies, especially in fast-growing regions like the Triangle. Crushed stone makes up about 90% of asphalt used in highways, he adds. “The equipment we use and the development of quarries is very expensive and takes a long-term investment to get a return. You can’t be there for just five or 10 years.”

The many fans of 5,600-acre Umstead Park, which the state opened in 1937, hope that the historic blending of mining and recreation can work effectively for generations to come.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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