Airport is UNC-Chapel Hill's to close, Hackney says

CHAPEL HILL -- House Speaker Joe Hackney said this week the fate of Horace Williams Airport lies with UNC-Chapel Hill leaders, despite a committee's recommendation that the General Assembly continue weighing the value of the airport versus the planned Carolina North campus.

State lawmakers want to preserve the UNC medical school's Medical Air Operations, but it probably won't remain at Horace Williams Airport, Hackney said. "That's up to the university, and I don't think that's their plan," he said.

The university wants to build Carolina North, a 250-acre satellite campus, on the site of the airport.

The speaker said a legislative oversight committee at some point will take up the issue of where to relocate Med Air, which operates through the medical school's Area Health Education Centers program. He couldn't say how soon that would happen, but Hackney said the 70-year-old airport, with its single paved runway, is unlikely to stay open no matter what the committee decides.

"I don't believe that issue is still on the table," agreed Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange Democrat who led the House subcommittee that reviewed the issue in June.

Still, the subcommittee as a whole recommended that the next committee study "whether the ... airport is more valuable continuing to operate as an airport or being developed as part of Carolina North."

University trustees, town officials and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce all have endorsed closing the airport, but some in the General Assembly remain unconvinced.

At a legislative briefing this month, Rep. Bill Faison, himself a pilot and aircraft owner, said an airport could be a great economic development tool.

UNC-CH plans to build a hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport to make way for Carolina North. AHEC doctors oppose the plan, saying the commute to RDU would force some of them to drop out of the program.

Members of the Insko-led House subcommittee heard the doctors' testimony at a June hearing. Later, some Orange County residents complained that only doctors, pilots and university officials were invited to speak.

"Special interests threaten to outweigh and overshadow the very conduct of the state's university system, ... yet another classic case of wealth-driven policymaking at the expense of the taxpayers," Chapel Hill resident Priscilla Murphy, a proponent of closing the airport, wrote to Hackney and Insko.

Vilcom executive Jim Heavner, who contributes thousands of dollars a year to political causes, was the only private citizen to testify before the subcommittee. He said an airport would only make Carolina North more attractive to potential corporate partners.

"UNC is so committed to getting Carolina North moving that it disdains anything that slows it down," he testified. "UNC is afraid to stake out its position that it needs an airport for fear that it will get stuck with the one they've got."

In a telephone interview Monday from an undisclosed vacation spot where he had flown his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron airplane, Heavner said that an airport benefits all of Chapel Hill, not just wealthy pilots such as himself. He said he would not be surprised if flying aircraft eventually becomes as common as driving cars for children growing up today.

"I can't argue my motives. Other people would have to judge," he said. "I'm trying to do something good for my community in something that I know something about."

Hackney said legislators' motivation for discussing the airport is to protect AHEC, not to serve the interests of private pilots, who account for about 75 percent of flights at the airport, according to university and Federal Aviation Administration records. Airport backers include Hackney's law partner Bob Epting, who, like Heavner and two dozen other pilots, docks a plane at Horace Williams.

"There's a whole community of aviation enthusiasts who are interested in the issue, but I think the legislature's interested mostly from the point of view of AHEC," Hackney said. "[Epting] does use [the airport]. I have no connection one way or the other, but he's already made other arrangements in the event of the closure."