UNC Gets OK to Close Horace Williams Airport

The University has received the N.C. General Assembly’s blessing to close Horace Williams Airport, which would remove what has been an obstacle to the planned research campus known as Carolina North.

But the Legislature left in a caveat in a provision in the new state budget: A study commission will look at whether closing the airport could significantly adversely affect the operation of the N.C. Area Health Education Centers, based at Carolina. Presumably it still could order the airport be kept open.

UNC has wanted to close the 77-year-old airport since 2002, searching unsuccessfully for an alternative site for a small airport in the vicinity. Until August, the state wouldn’t allow it, citing the importance of a fleet of planes operated by AHEC. The UNC trustees voted in May to close the airport and move AHEC’s operations to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

A web page launched in late June by Citizens for Higher Education, a political action committee organized by a group of UNC supporters in 2002, included closing the airport among three legislative priorties, along with considering recipients of full undergraduate scholarships as in-state students and allowing tuition to be set at the campus level.

The Legislature gave the go-ahead to consider recipients of full undergraduate scholarships as in-state students. The tuition provision did not pass, but the Board of Governors has appointed a tuition policy task force to study the needs of UNC and N.C. State and make recommendations by October.

The airport could be closed as early as next summer.

An analysis by an aviation planning consulting firm showed that 693 people had used the airport from March 2003 to February 2004; AHEC’s Web site said its planes made five to seven flights a day.

The airport occupies part of about 1,000 acres that was given to UNC by philosophy Professor Horace Williams (class of 1883). The rest of the tract has remained undeveloped. It is less than two miles from the main campus, and UNC wants to build a satellite campus for research and possibly academic partnerships with private companies. Homes and offices also are envisioned.

“It’s very positive news,” said Tony Waldrop ’74, vice chancellor for research and economic development. “This gives us the capability to do more planning.” The next step, he said, is to establish a process of negotiating with the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro over issues such as zoning and transportation. Plans have called for about 250 acres to be developed over 50 to 100 years. Waldrop said the earliest ground could be broken is in 2008.

For more about this issue, see “An Air of Caring” in the September/October 2004 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online.

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