Council urged to take stand on airport matter

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 9:30am
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Make a stand.

That’s what Lisa Konicki, President of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, and the owners of New England Airlines urged the New Shoreham Town Council to do against any measures the Rhode Island Airport Commission might take to shorten the runways at Westerly Airport.

“Block Island should have a voice and go on the record,” said Konicki, whose Chamber services the town of Westerly, during the Council work session on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

“Adding the Block Island voice to the communications with RIAC would make a huge difference,” said Bill Bendokas, who owns New England Airlines with his wife, Lois.

Council member Sven Risom, after hearing comments from Konicki and the Bendokas’, said that the Westerly Airport “was a critical part of island life and safety” and indicated a letter of support to maintain the runways at Westerly Airport as they are might be a good idea.

The meeting began with First Warden Ken Lacoste asking Konicki for an overview of the situation.

Konicki described a contentious community dialogue that centers around trees located on five private properties abutting the airport that have grown so tall as to penetrate the approach space above the airport.

Konicki said that there were originally 13 properties with trees that had grown too tall, but owners of seven of the properties had come to some sort of agreement with RIAC to cut the trees. This left five owners that have, in so many words, dug in their heels.

“There have been claims of jet fuel falling out of the sky, claims about noise and dust, things that have hurt their quality of life,” said Konicki of the abutters who have not settled the matter. “There are concerns of safety due to the traffic coming in and out of the airport. All of these are valid concerns by the residents. Of course people want their privacy. They purchased their homes expecting a certain quality of life.”

Konicki, even though she is on the other side of the issue, said the homeowners have fought a successful battle against RIAC “much to their credit.” They went to court and won an injunction against RIAC removing any more trees.

The issue now is that RIAC has taken preliminary measures to shorten the runways at the airport in order to accommodate the fact that the approach space has been impacted by the trees. RIAC also intends to pursue the matter in court, which Konicki admitted could take anywhere from two to five years to resolve. 

While a protracted court battle may be good for the abutters, Konicki said, “no one wants to wait three or four years” in the business community in Westerly.

At the same time, Konicki said, it would be impossible to “minimize the importance of the link between Westerly and Block Island.”

Acknowledging that, New Shoreham Town Councilor Martha Ball said, “In a way, (the airport) is a lot more important to us — as someone who has been flown off — than it is to the Town of Westerly.”

Bill Bendokas, in response to a question by Lacoste, said shortened runways at the Westerly Airport would have a “relatively negligible affect on New England Airlines,” but reiterated his stance that longer runways are always safer than shorter.

Konicki pointed out that Block Island, with its much shorter runways, has had four recorded accidents in seven years, while Westerly has had “zero” in the past seven years.

The matter was on the Council’s agenda for discussion purposes only, and no action was taken.