Horace Williams airport in Chapel Hill to close after years of debate

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

Horace Williams airport will close to the public on May 15 and a solar energy project will be built on the land, UNC-Chapel Hill officials said Tuesday.

The news was sent in an email to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and Town Manager Roger Stancil by Jonathan Pruitt, UNC's vice chancellor for finance and operations.

The closure is not a surprise. The Board of Trustees passed a resolution in November authorizing the university-owned airport to shut down.

Planes owned by those who leased space there were removed by May 1. The runway will be closed according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines on May 16.

But the airport will remain in use for about a year by UNC Hospital Air Care for parking and refueling, under an agreement with the airport. The temporary arrangement will last as long as the hospital builds additional helipad space.

"The University has no near-term plans to construct buildings at the airport site," Pruitt wrote in the letter. "Likewise, there are currently no plans to sell the land."

UNC does plan to build a solar energy project with battery storage on land during the second half of the year. A construction bidding process is under way, Pruitt said.

Last year, UNC officials said the airport was losing money after the departure of a flying club and the university's Area Health Education Centers planes, which moved to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in 2011.

Others say the losses were the result of the university's artificial limit of planes that could be based there. Steve Hedges, southern regional manager of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the limit was 15, compared to 47 years ago.

"They essentially forced it to lose money so they could argue it was losing money," he said of the university.

Now, Hedges argues, the airport's revenue has improved due to the helicopter refueling. He said depending on the number of landings, the airport may have to be classified as a helicopter landing pad, which would require an FAA airspace study.

"It's going to keep functioning as an airport for helicopters anyway, so why close it?" Hedges asked.

Closing Horace Williams has always been unpopular in some quarters, and once met with opposition from the legislature. University officials have argued that the airport, which is close to neighborhoods and schools, poses a danger.

Under former Chancellor James Moeser, the university had plans to develop the airport land into a large satellite campus called Carolina North. Those plans fell apart when the recession hit, and money has not been available since for the venture.