Published: Oct 05, 2008 08:34 AM
Modified: Oct 05, 2008 08:34 AM
CHAPEL HILL -- A group of residents plans to present a petition to the Orange County commissioners Tuesday asking the county to fight any taking of rural land for a future airport.
The group, Preserve Rural Orange, says it has collected 1,100 signatures on the petition. It is most concerned about a site in White Cross, in southwest Orange County, identified in a 2005 study as a top candidate for a general aviation airport. University officials say the 2005 Talbert & Bright study identified sites on a preliminary level only and that the residents' concern is premature.
The residents also dispute a 2008 Talbert & Bright report that estimates a new general aviation airport in Orange County could generate up to $53 million a year in economic impact, or more than four times what Horace Williams Airport generates.
"I'm very suspicious of those figures," resident Tony Blake said in an interview. "I don't believe they're anything more than a wet finger in the air trying to see which way the wind blows."
A new airport authority authorized by the General Assembly will have the power of eminent domain, the ability to take private land for public use.
In addition to losing their land, the residents say they fear an airport would pollute the watershed and circumvent local environmental protections.
The legislation says that when airport regulations and local development regulations conflict, the more stringent rules apply.
But on Friday, Orange County Planning Director Craig Benedict said he didn't know whether the county even has current zoning that allows an aiport.
Benedict said he is consulting with the county attorney and plans to have information for the county commissioners within the next month.
"The question will be can airports go in other (zoning) categories," he said. "Can they go in agricultural-residential? Can they go in rural residential?"
The county commissioners say they are already concerned that university officials pushed the airport authority through the legislature without providing more time for discussion.
A public records request to UNC appears to confirm what commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs has said, that the county received no formal notice the bill was about to be voted on.
The request asked for all correspondence to or from former Chancellor James Moeser, current Chancellor Holden Thorp, UNC System President Erskine Bowles and UNC Health Care CEO Bill Roper regarding the airport authority.
Only one memo in the inch thick packet of correspondence is addressed to the county: a letter from Thorp to Jacobs dated Aug. 12, the day after Gov. Mike Easley signed the airport authority bill.
"You and I discussed the project during our lunch on July 3, and I know you and the Orange County Commissioners have concerns," Thorp wrote. He goes on to repeat the reassurance that in the event of a conflict local zoning regulations will prevail and says his goal is to work collaboratively with the county and town governments.
Thorp was on a statewide tour late last week and unavailable for comment, according to a university spokesman.
Kevin FitzGerald, associate dean for finance and administration at the UNC School of Medicine, said the airport authority will provide a framework for the public input some say has been missing so far. The 15-member authority will have five members appointed by the county and its muncipalities. Eight will come from either the university or UNC Health Care and two will be appointed by the legislature.
Residents say that just ensures that the university will dominate in future discussions.
They say Raleigh-Durham International Airport -- the interim home for the university's medical fleet after Horace Williams Airport closes -- is a cheaper, suitable alternative to a new general aviation aiport.
They also question why the university is leading the search for a facility now being discussed more in terms of economic development than medical services delivery.
FitzGerald said a trip to RDU in traffic can take 45 minutes and that the university, especially with the future research campus, has an important role to play in economic development.
"A big piece of Carolina North are the benefits that resound not only to the university but to the state and university as well," he said in an interview last week.
"They're tied up together," he said. "That's a reality."