The Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority board members and staff met with members of the Morrisville Town Council Tuesday to discuss a proposed change to the town’s 2009 Land Use Plan. The Board appreciates the opportunity to have an open dialogue with council members on an issue that impacts RDU and the Town. Morrisville has been a good neighbor to the airport for many decades and the Airport Authority looks forward to working with the council to reach a mutually agreeable solution.
Board Chairman John Kane delivered the following opening remarks:
Good afternoon Mayor Cawley, council members and staff. Thank you for inviting us this afternoon to have a conversation about an issue of mutual interest to the Airport Authority and the Town of Morrisville.
More than 80 years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly did a wonderful thing by creating the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. They had a vision when they established the Authority. That vision was to build an airport between the cities of Raleigh and Durham that could someday achieve regional, statewide, national and global importance by becoming the economic backbone of this community.
If those legislators were alive today, I think they would be proud that their vision has been realized. It has come to life through RDU’s impact on the significant economic growth in central and eastern North Carolina. In 2019, RDU served a record 14.2 million passengers, supported 230,000 aircraft operations and 86,000 regional jobs, and generated more than $12 billion in economic impact. COVID-19 has certainly put a dent in those figures, but the strength of the local economy and the growing need for global connectivity mean we will reach and exceed those numbers once again in the future.
However, economic growth does not come without challenges and competing interests. In the 1940s, the airport was built many miles from business and population centers. Today, business and population centers have grown closer to RDU in part because of the benefits of being located next to the airport. As these centers have drawn closer, the Authority has worked cooperatively with neighboring communities to prevent residential development in high noise areas.
One of the best tools to preserve a balance of competing interests is the federally required noise contours that essentially chart the most noise impacted areas surrounding the airport due to aircraft overflight. The current noise contours are based on 1992 Noise Exposure Maps. These maps allow both the airport and the nearby communities to plan effectively.
In the early 1990s, Airport Overlay Districts, referred to as ‘AODs,’ were established around the noise contours. The AOD was established after a lengthy regional public process. As an illustration of the importance of the AOD, at around the same time, RDU was sued by residents over noise and RDU had to pay considerable damages. Residential development is prohibited within the AOD to protect residents from noise exposure. For the last 30 years, the zoning protections in the AOD have been remarkably successful.
In 2017, the Authority adopted the Vision 2040 long-term infrastructure plan to accommodate more flights and larger aircraft over the next 25 years. As part of Vision 2040, the Board considered land uses and future aircraft noise compatibility with the surrounding community. When the Vision 2040 plan was adopted, the Board reaffirmed that surrounding communities should use the 1992 Noise Exposure Maps to make land use planning decisions. The 1992 maps provide the airport room to expand air service by creating a buffer between RDU and its neighbors.
Ever since Vision 2040 was finalized, Authority staff have worked closely with local communities, including the Town of Morrisville, to promote continued use of the Noise Exposure Maps – and more importantly, to maintain the integrity of the AODs.
The proposed amendment to Morrisville’s Land Use Plan would signal a shift in more than 30 years of thoughtful and collaborative planning. It would alter the Airport Overlay Districts and remove protections in high noise areas where residential development has been prohibited for decades. As the region continues to grow, increased activity from more flights and larger aircraft will create more noise in that section of Morrisville.
RDU staff have also participated on Morrisville’s Technical Advisory Committee to educate staff and their consultant on airport land use concerns and discourage the Town from changing zoning regulations within the AOD.
Despite our repeated objections, the Town continues to consider authorizing the development of homes, including affordable housing, within the AOD. Any type of residential development within the AOD, whether it’s affordable housing, single or multi-family, exposes RDU and the Town to negative public sentiment and potential litigation from future residents. To be candid: allowing residential development within the AOD is a recipe for permanent disputes between RDU and its neighbors, something that we have all avoided for more than a generation.
RDU opposes any change to the current AOD to protect the interests of the airport and the community it serves. Our goal is not to dictate how local communities should create their local land use plans. Our goal is to educate and ad
vocate for the best interests of the airport and its neighboring communities. Leaving the AOD intact is a sensible long-term approach to make sure flight activity does not negatively impact area residents. The maintenance of the AODs also assures RDU long-term operational viability by preventing further residential encroachment.
This council is in a unique position to preserve the future vitality of RDU and the quality of life in Morrisville. Decisions made by the Town of Morrisville will impact nearly half the state. We ask that you preserve the AOD and consider one of the many alternatives already permissible in these high-noise areas.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to have this open dialogue and we look forward to your questions and comments.