Orange County

UNC Chapel Hill ready to close Horace Williams Airport

Aerial photo of UNC's Horace Williams airport, looking west.
Aerial photo of UNC's Horace Williams airport, looking west. N&O file photo

UNC Chapel Hill wants to close Horace Williams Airport in the near future because it’s losing money and needs more than $1 million in repairs, the university notified Orange County on Wednesday.

A memo about closure is on the agenda of next week’s campus trustees’ finance committee meeting, according to the notice from Linda Convissor, the university’s director of community relations,

Convissor’s message went out to the mayors of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, the chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and their respective town and county managers.

She did not give an exact date for the airport’s closure, and the trustees’ agenda had not been posted to the campus website as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

A small plane (upper frame) takes off from the Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill. A memo about the closing of the airport is on the agenda of next week’s campus trustees’ finance committee meeting, Scott Sharpe

Trustees Chairman Haywood Cochran, meanwhile, stressed that closure at this point is the university’s desire, not its decision.

“It’s something we are considering,” he said. “There are a lot of boxes to check.”

Cochran noted that previous closure attempts ran into opposition from other interests at the university and in the state. But with the falling-off of the field’s business, he thinks the business case for keeping it open is weak.

Its operating losses come “in something that’s a non-core part of our mission now,” he said, adding that in his opinion “it’s not worth it for seven or eight flights a day.”

Moreover, the runway needs to be resurfaced, and there are worries about safety and insurance costs.

“The major concern is safety,” he said. “If we had something tragic happen out there that was on our watch, when we know it has some limitations on the length of the runway, God help us if something happened that was near an elementary school.”

Convissor said the university’s interest in closing the airstrip doesn’t signal UNC-CH plans to start development any time soon on the long-planned Carolina North satellite campus on the airport property.

Work on that project’s been on hold for lack of money. University leaders will ponder its future as they rework the campus master development plan next winter, she said.

The airport has long been a bone of contention between the university, neighborhood activists, and, depending on who holds office at any given time, with Chapel Hill officials.

It’s remained open after former Chancellor James Moeser evicted a private flying club once based there, and stayed open even after UNC-CH officials moved the flight operations of the university’s Area Health Education Centers program to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2011.

The departure of those tenants cost the airport the bulk of its revenue base. Convissor said it’s sustained “substantial operating losses” since AHEC’s move.

But the writing’s been on the wall for a while now because the airport occupies the flattest and most developable piece of the 1,000-plus acre Horace Williams property. The Carolina North plan UNC-CH and town officials agreed on would focus development of the future satellite campus there.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg