Chapel Hill News

Orange County cancels public meetings on revised airport rules

Orange County has cancelled indefinitely two planned information sessions to talk about proposed changes to where and how airports can be built.

The county had planned to hold the meetings Dec. 17 and Dec. 21.

No specific plans for an airport are on the table, county planner Michael Harvey said. Any changes to the rules for building an airport would face public hearings, advisory board review and meetings of the Orange Couny Board of Commissioners.

The county has been looking at updating and strengthening local rules on the heels of a UNC attempt several years ago to site a new airport in southwestern Orange County, he said. The review was delayed until recently while staff worked on other projects.

The newest proposal is for a conditional zoning district that gives the public more input in the process, without having to hire an attorney or experts, and allows the Orange County Board of Commissioners to negotiate other conditions that would reduce the effects on neighbors.

The proposed rules also would clarify the type of private facilities that could be built for local plane enthusiasts and commercial operations, such as crop dusting.

The county already allows airports – including private airstrips on private property – in some rural residential, agricultural and industrial areas with a special-use permit, but the rules are “woefully out of date,” Harvey said. They were written 30 to 40 years ago and lack specifics about runway or fuel storage standards, for example, or how to mitigate negative effects on nearby properties, he said.

“In my opinion, our goal is to ensure that any applicant bringing forward an airport proposal has to show that that facility is adapting to a local landscape vs. requiring the local landscape to adapt to it,” Harvey said.

Laura Streitfeld, a member of Preserve Rural Orange, said she appreciates the reason for the changes but would rather see future airports be prohibited.

“If an applicant wanted to build an airport ... they’re creating very stringent rules and studies that have to take place,” she said. “Someone who’s going to invest that much money, it becomes a situation where the ball is rolling,” and it’s difficult to stop the process.

Preserve Rural Orange, a grassroots citizens group, formed in 2009 to oppose UNC’s planned airport and other projects that residents said threatened a rural way of life. Studies show airports create runoff and pollution, while requiring industrial-type infrastructure and a lot of land to be safe, she said.

While a consultant at the time said UNC’s planned airport could boost economic development, Steve Brantley, the county’s current conomic development director, said that would be a waste of land.

Small airports don’t generate the jobs and tax revenues that industry, offices and retail create, Brantley said, and the county lacks the topography to support a regional hub, similar to FedEx in Greensboro. Corporate travelers are more likely to rely on Raleigh-Durham International Airport, he said.

Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams Airport still serves some business and university air traffic, according to Mike Freeman, UNC’s director of auxiliary services. UNC’s Area Health Education Center operations moved to RDU in 2011, and there are only three to five flights a day now, if any, he said.

Many private pilots, including 250 former Chapel Hill Flying Club members, moved years ago to the Wings of Carolina Flying Club in Sanford, said Mauricio Castro, an Orange County resident who joined in 2009. The Chapel Hill club lost its lease at Horace Williams in 2001.

The Sanford Flying Club has nearly 500 members, many of whom would be interested if a new Orange County airport were built, Castro said.

"Of course, if you were going to ask me, I would want to fly out of our county and spend the money and spend the effort close to home,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s next

The county will hold two information sessions on the proposed airport guidelines. The meetings will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17, and Monday, Dec. 21, in the lower level meeting room of the West Campus Office building at 131 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough.

The proposed plan can be found online at bit.ly/1jKt3Fs. More information is available from the Orange County Planning and Inspections Department at 919-245-2575.

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