UNC Seeks OK to Close Airport to Make Way For Carolina North

UNC wants to close Horace Williams Airport to make room for Carolina North, a proposed research park that would take up about a quarter of the 1,000-acre Horace Williams tract less than two miles north of the main campus.

The state Senate has passed a provision in its budget bill, placed there at the University’s request, that would allow it to go forth with its plans, but the N.C. House wants a study commission to talk with doctors and pilots in the N.C. Area Health Education Centers program, a primary user of the airport. The House also would require the airport to stay open at least 30 days beyond the end of the 2006 legislative session.

Lawmakers from both chambers faced resolving these differences, among others, in June as they began working on a final budget.

Tentative plans for Carolina North include labs, homes and offices. A final plan can be created only after the airport’s fate is decided.

The Board of  Trustees voted unanimously in May in favor of closing the facility and having AHEC (pronounced A-heck), which runs an air fleet of six small planes to fly doctors to remote regions of the state, relocate 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 trustees also were briefed on a consultants’ study to help UNC identify an alternative site for an airport. With limited prospects for that option, they agreed to push for the relocation of the medical air fleet to RDU once construction is set to begin at Carolina North. The N.C. General Assembly’s approval would be needed for a relocation.

UNC first attempted to close the airport in 2002, but the General Assembly voted to keep it open until January 2005. Last year, lawmakers passed a new provision requiring the airport to stay open indefinitely until a new base for AHEC’s operations could be found.

An analysis by Talbert & Bright, an aviation planning consulting firm contracted by the University, showed that 693 people had used the airport from March 2003 to February 2004. AHEC’s Web site says five to seven flights are made each day with one to three passengers aboard.

Participating doctors have argued that a longer commute to another airport would hamper the program’s effectiveness. Program Director Tom Bacon ’78 (DRPH), told trustees that the prospect of the added travel time was leading some people to rethink their participation.

The trustees decided that while both Carolina North and AHEC are important to the University, the longer drive to RDU would not adversely affect the outreach program to a major degree.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Maryland, claims to have successfully lobbied the General Assembly in 2002 to block UNC’s first try at closing the airport. In a statement released on its Web site in May, the group said worsening traffic conditions at RDU would delay AHEC’s emergency flights.

The airport off Estes Drive was built in 1928 on what was then the outskirts of Chapel Hill. Since then, the town has grown, and the airport now is surrounded by development, with five schools within a one-mile radius.

In the past, area residents have expressed safety concerns about the danger of a crash. A Chapel Hill Flying Club member made an emergency landing into nearby trees in 2001, resulting in the loss of the group’s permission to use the site.

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