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April 30, 2002

UNC announces plans to close Horace Williams Airport

CHAPEL HILL – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will close its Horace Williams Airport because it has become a financial drain and requires major safety-related improvements not consistent with the university’s commitment to positive town-gown relations, Chancellor James Moeser said today (April 30).

No exact timetable for closing the university-owned airport has been set, but officials plan to work as quickly as possible to shut down operations, Moeser said at a campus news conference.

Those steps will include relocating airplanes serving the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program, which is based in the UNC School of Medicine and transports faculty across North Carolina to provide specialty clinics and educational programs designed to improve the quality of health care for all North Carolinians.

As at least a temporary measure, officials plan to immediately explore the feasibility of moving that operation to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, a process that could take two months or longer. The AHEC program is among the university’s leading public service programs and for years has been the primary reason the university has operated the airport, which opened in the 1940s.

Approximately 25 owners of private planes will be asked to relocate their airplanes based at the UNC airport. A timetable for their relocation has not been set. University officials will meet with those pilots as soon as they know more.

Currently, Horace Williams is a public use airport; any pilot or aircraft complying with the airport’s requirements can use it. University officials expect to convert the airport as soon as possible to private status, a move that would limit flights to AHEC and other Horace Williams-based planes until the facility shuts down.

"We have carefully considered a variety of scenarios regarding the future of the Horace Williams Airport and determined that closure is in the best interests of both the university and the community," Moeser said. "With this action, the university is demonstrating responsible fiscal decision-making as well as a sincere commitment to the community to strengthen and advance town-gown relations."

Closure of the airport also allows administrators to reconsider a land use plan created for the future development of the Horace Williams tract, now referred to as Carolina North. That plan had been predicated on the airport remaining in use.

"Ultimately, we had to weigh all of the financial commitments involved in operating the airport in the context of the severe state budget crisis, our future fiscal prospects and overall campuswide priorities," he said. "Shutting down clearly emerged as the most responsible action."

A key contributing factor was several steps required to keep the airport as safe as university administrators felt necessary, he said.

"Those choices – including massive clear-cutting of trees to meet federal rules for safe runway approaches – did not square with our desire to be good neighbors to the citizens of Chapel Hill and Carrboro," he said. "We want to be responsive to the community as well as to safety concerns. And we are sensitive to the neighborhoods adjacent to the university property occupied by the airport."

The airport has been draining the campus budget for years. The facility has never covered its capital costs; in the last decade UNC spent an average of $250,000 annually to meet those expenses.

To continue airport operations, the university would face an additional one-time capital investment estimated at approximately $2 million or more for a host of safety- and security-related improvements. Most of those costs would involve removing trees on university-owned property and purchasing land and easements to remove trees on adjoining property to keep flight approach slopes clear and meet FAA requirements permitting instrument landings.

The tree removal would involve clear-cutting large swaths of tall pines and hardwoods that have grown into both runway approach areas, including some at one of the major town entranceways off Airport Road.

UNC unsuccessfully applied twice for grants from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s aviation division to pay for the tree-related work. The university is no longer eligible for such funding following last year’s removal of the Chapel Hill Flying Club from Horace Williams. Moeser made that decision because of safety issues and community concerns about the club.

The departure of the flying club further exacerbated the budget problems. As a result, the airport is expected to record an operating deficit totaling about $100,000 in fiscal 2001-2002.

The airport also needs to replace its navigational aid system. Possible new security requirements, driven by post-Sept. 11 concerns, for general aviation airports like UNC’s – including gates, fences and video recording devices – would add to future one-time capital expenditures.

The university intends to continue to support the AHEC program by moving its air operations to another site, officials said.

The tree issue was crucial for airport operations because of FAA rules on safe runway approach routes and the use of instruments for landing. In 1998, the FAA notified the university that it must remove trees in the runway approach slopes to retain instrument-guided landing approaches. On its own property, UNC removed all of the offending trees and topped others in order to comply with the FAA regulations.

Some of the largest trees now at issue are across Seawell School Road and are part of Carolina North, the university’s 900-acre tract that is generally envisioned someday as a mixed-use development including housing, public-private partnerships, research facilities and retail. The large trees are in an area tentatively identified as a possible site for housing; the clear-cutting that would be required would detract from both the beauty and value of that property, officials said.

The university is in the early stages of identifying the vision for the Carolina North project.

An additional consideration was new FAA guidelines for development near airports that suggest appropriate land uses to local governments. Preliminary planning for part of Carolina North would not be consistent with those guidelines.

"Carolina North is a project that is vital to the university’s future academic and research success, and we intend for discussions about the possibilities there to be part of a very open, transparent process that will involve both the campus and local communities," Moeser said. "To be both strategic and responsible, we also had to consider future development potential as part of our deliberations about the airport’s future because of its key location on that property. It was another significant contributing factor."

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News Services contact: Mike McFarland, (919) 962-8593, mike_mcfarland@unc.edu