Published: Aug 27, 2008 07:26 AM
Modified: Aug 27, 2008 07:25 AM
UNC Health to locate airport
15-member airport authority will have power of eminent domain
CHAPEL HILL -- The UNC Health Care System will create an airport authority to find a site for and operate a new airport, chief executive office Bill Roper said.And Barry Jacobs, the chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, is not happy about it. The N.C. General Assembly approved a bill this year allowing UNC to create an airport authority either through the university's board of trustees or the Health Care System's board of directors. Roper, who is also the dean of the medical school, said Chancellor Holden Thorp had asked that the authority come under the Health Care System."I think it's a judgment call as to which of the two boards represents the interests of the airport," Roper said. "We could have gone either way." The Orange County Board of Commissioners wanted more discussion before state lawmakers let UNC create an authority.Under the bill, an airport authority would be able to obtain land by eminent domain, the acquisition of private land for a public use.At a meeting this spring, commissioners authorized Chairman Barry Jacobs to send a letter to the county's House and Senate delegation asking that the bill be tabled for more input from the public.The letter said granting university airport authorities such broad powers would usurp local authority and undermine the county's land use planning. "Orange County is further concerned that moving forward with this bill constitutes a departure from the 'good faith' discussions that we have had in the past with University representatives," the letter said.On Monday, Jacobs said the decision to move forward, despite local elected officials' concerns, made him angry. The university and county have not had a sit-down meeting since February, he said."We thought we were in a collaborative process," Jacobs said. "Some people at the university went ahead and pre-empted the entire process. "By the time we found out we were already fighting a rear-guard action," he said.UNC has said it needs to close Horace Williams Airport, located off Estes Drive Extension, in time to open the first building in Carolina North. The UNC Board of Trustees is scheduled to discuss that building, the Innovation Center, at a special meeting Thursday morning at the Carolina Inn.Roper acknowledged Jacobs' concerns but said it's very early in the process. According to the bill, the airport authority could only look for land in Orange County."This is a process that's going to play out over a considerable period of time," Roper said. The university uses the airport to fly medical professionals to underserved parts of the state. In the past physicians have said a new airport would have to be within 20 minutes of campus. Dr. Tom Bacon, director of the Area Health Education Centers, said UNC is proceeding with plans to build a temporary hangar at Raleigh Durham International Airport to house the AHEC fleet. Construction could begin in the next three to four months. "We're on schedule to move unless something changes from the university's standpoint," Bacon said.
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2008 The Chapel Hill News