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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will begin new safety improvements at the Horace Williams Airport this month to comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules.

UNC will remove trees that have grown too high in the runway approach slope and repair the runway lighting system. The university took similar steps with trees in 1998 and in recent years cut select trees periodically to comply with FAA requirements. The new removal will involve selectively cutting some pines and hardwood trees on about seven acres.

“We are making these safety improvements to honor our pledge to keep the airport open until 2008 when we move forward with Carolina North,” said Nancy Suttenfield, vice chancellor for finance and administration. “We are committed to our Area Health Education Centers program and to providing a safe airport for its Medical Air Operations until the airport closes. As long as Horace Williams remains open, the airport must be safe.”

In 1998, the FAA notified the university that it must remove trees in the runway approach slope to retain instrument-guided landing approaches. On its own property, UNC removed all of the too-tall trees and topped others in order to comply with the FAA regulations.

A survey by consultants Talbert & Bright documented the airport’s latest tree problem and was the basis for the new removal plan. To avoid any tree cutting on private property, the university will effectively shorten the runway length by an additional 220 feet.

A swath of pine trees covering less than one acre on the runway’s southeast side must be cut and removed. Most of those trees shield the airport parking lot from Estes Drive Extension. A smaller number of others are across Estes Drive next to the university’s facilities. The east side of the runway was the main location of the 1998 tree removal project.

In addition, UNC must selectively cut down trees that are too tall and located on slightly more than six acres. Those trees impede approaches on the west end of the airport’s runway—including on both sides of Seawell School Road on UNC property that is part of Carolina North. An estimated 15 percent of the trees in that area must be cut.

The height of the trees to be cut depends on where in the approach slope they are located. Some are 85 feet tall or higher. Crews will mark trees on the runway’s west end starting next week. Work on the runway’s southeast side is not scheduled until late November or December.

Crews will use environmentally sensitive practices in removing trees, said Kirk Pelland, grounds division director. On the west side of the runway, crews will cut trees and leave them on the ground to minimize additional damage to remaining trees. The university followed that same practice in 1998. Existing bicycle or running trails will be cleared after the trees come down.

UNC plans to restore the areas bordering Estes Drive Extension as a natural area. Plantings will include flowering trees and low-growing evergreens. One large white ash tree near the Town of Chapel Hill’s bus maintenance facility, located on leased UNC property, will be left and lit at night and during periods of low visibility as a safety measure.

Besides the tree removal, the university will upgrade its slope indicator system, which helps guide pilots during landing. Preliminary estimates place the cost of tree removal and the lighting equipment at about $200,000.

UNC plans to relocate Medical Air Operations, which serves the Area Health Education Centers Program, to Raleigh-Durham International Airport when the development of Carolina North begins. AHEC improves access to primary health-care services around the state through the efforts of faculty, staff and students in educational and patient-related activities at regional centers.

Last May, UNC pledged to keep the airport open until site work for Carolina North begins in 2008. The public-use airport owned by UNC has operated since the 1940s. Carolina North is a new campus envisioned for living and discovery on a 900-acre tract owned by UNC that includes the airport. UNC trustees authorized work with potential partners, including the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, on the project

Map links: 
PDF of Horace Williams Airport

This map shows where the university must cut down trees to comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules. Pines covering less than one acre on the Horace Williams Airport runway’s southeast side must be cut and removed. UNC must selectively cut down trees on about six acres on the west end of the runway, including on both sides of Seawell School Road. An estimated 15 percent of the tress in this area must be cut.

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