Local News

UNC grounds plans for new airport in Orange County

Posted January 9, 2009 12:37 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has stopped plans to create an airport authority in southwestern Orange County as the first step to building a replacement for Horace Williams Airport.

"There's unfortunately been a significant lack of trust among a lot of the neighbors," UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp said, while announcing the change Friday morning.

"There is a great deal of distrust, not necessarily of the authority, but of the process by which it came to be," he continued.

Property owners surrounding the proposed site for the new airport had said they expected their land to be seized via eminent domain and that the new airport would be larger than the older one. Farmers said they would lose family lands and their livelihood.

"Some of these people have been out there all their life and their families before them," said Marc Marcopolos, a member of an action group against the airport.

The decision mainly affects UNC's medical staff, many of whom will switch to using Raleigh-Durham International Airport when Horace Williams is closed. The Area Health Education Centers and MedAir programs use the old airport.

"Some of them are disappointed as you might expect," Thorp said, adding that the decision was hard "because I made a pledge to our AHEC doctors."

Although a timetable is not in place, Horace Williams will eventually be forced out for the university's law school as construction of Carolina North, a 250-acre expansion for research and other efforts, gets underway.

Dr. Alan Stiles, with UNC Pediatrics, described the airport controversy as "two good things clashing against each other."

Stiles said that although the decision is inconvenient, staff can adjust to using RDU.

Thorp said he consulted with Rep. Joe Hackney, UNC System President Erskine Bowles, county commissioners, Chapel Hill mayor and UNC trustees before changing plans.

Preserve Rural Orange organized an art exhibit for farmers who would have been affected by airport construction to dramatize their losses. Instead of a protest, however, it will be a celebration at the Jessie Kalisher Gallery in Carrboro Friday evening, organizers said.

"We thought this was going to drag on for a long time," Marcopolos said. "There are a lot of powerful special interests behind this."

Instead, he said, Friday's announcement made "a sunny day in southwest Orange County."

When asked, Thorp would not rule out the possibility of building another airport in Orange County in the future.

"Whether Orange County wants and needs an airport should be widely and openly discussed," Throp said. "And the decision sould be made by the county and its citizens."