Westerly opposes RIAC’s plans for its airport

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 9:45am
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A decision by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to possibly shorten the length of three, or possibly all four, runways at Westerly Airport caused enough concern among the members of the Westerly Town Council to approve sending RIAC a letter to announce their formal opposition to that plan. That concern may have been heightened by a letter sent to Westerly Town Manager Derrik Kennedy from RIAC’s legal counsel, sent on Friday, Dec. 15, which stated that if RIAC needed to continuously shorten the four runways, due to surrounding trees that have entered the approach space, that “could ultimately lead to the closure of the airport.”

According to Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lisa Konicki, who attended the public hearing on Monday night in Westerly, the vote was actually taken on Tuesday morning because the meeting ended after midnight, and after three hours of what Konicki described as a “passionate debate.”

New Shoreham First Warden Ken Lacoste said he was not aware of this latest development, but planned to put the topic on a Town Council meeting agenda “soon.”

RIAC had previously announced that it would shorten — or displace — the length of two runways in order to accommodate the height of trees on neighboring properties that had grown tall enough to penetrate approach space. In order to avoid the trees, planes must come in at a higher approach angle, which cause the plane to land further down the runway. 

New England Airlines owner Bill Bendokas has been a vocal opponent to any change to the runways, and has said previously that shortening them would be a “slippery slope” toward closing the airport altogether. Bendokas has also previously stated that shorter runways would alter the arrival procedures used by pilots when they land. Those procedures are mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Bendokas has said that until new procedures are published by the FAA, pilots are currently not able to use instruments to land during the day in inclement weather.

RIAC has been asking Westerly to formally announce its position on the runway situation for some time, but until this past week the Council has been reluctant to do so, according to Konicki. She said she has been urging the Council to take a stand.

The letter sent to Westerly Town Manager Kennedy, which was sent on Dec. 15, detailed the situation.

“The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (“RIAC”) is obligated by law to maintain obstruction free approach surfaces for all runways at each of the six State owned airports...,” the letter, which was written by RIAC’s corporate counsel Annette P. Jacques, states. “In this instance, RIAC has met fierce opposition to achieve the same obligation we have achieved at other airports to ensure the safety of pilots, passengers and the surrounding community.” 

The letter states that RIAC had been attempting to negotiate the situation as early as 2004, but “After 10 years of negotiations, RIAC was unsuccessful in securing easements on all of the impacted properties,” the letter states. By law, RIAC is required to purchase easements at fair market value. After the negotiations failed, “RIAC attempted to exercise its eminent domain authority to acquire 13 avigation easements necessary to ensure the safety of the pilots and community. Eight of the property owners agreed to the avigation easements and accepted payment for them. The remaining five owners filed a lawsuit in the Rhode Island Superior Court challenging the State’s authority to acquire avigation easements by eminent domain.” Those abutters won that case.

At this point, RIAC said that there are two ways that this situation can be resolved: by either cutting the trees, or shortening the runways.

“Doing neither of these is not an option. Please know that shorter runways will likely limit the size and type of planes that previously were able to land at Westerly Airport before the trees grew to a point where they interfered with safe airport operations,” the letter states.

It added, “Because trees continue to grow, we are not certain what the available length of the runway(s) will be at this point.” 

In urging the town to take a stand on the matter, the letter states, “This is why it is so important that we have your guidance on this matter. In essence, a decision to continue to relocate thresholds could ultimately lead to the closure of the airport.”

The letter concludes by saying: “Let us reiterate that RIAC fully intends to let the community’s input guide its decision making process. In essence, the community needs to decide what they want this aviation asset to ultimately become. We look forward to working with you for the best interest of the comnunity and a safely managed airport that meets FAA regulations and requirements.”

The letter to be sent to RIAC that was approved by the Westerly Council has two primary points, said Konicki: One is that the Town of Westerly will not get into a lawsuit with RIAC, and the other is that the town now officially opposes the shortening of the runways.

“There was more than three hours of debate, pro and con, emotional, passionate, some angry,” said Konicki. “It was the highest drama meeting I have ever sat through with an unbelievable surprise ending.”

The surprise ending was that most of the 80 or so people that attended the meeting left after the Council appeared to table the matter without taking a stand, said Konicki. She said she was watching the meeting on her phone when a lone pilot stood and “respectfully asked them to revisit the subject and to address the displacement of the runways.”

A motion was made to reopen the topic, which was seconded, and the sending of the letter addressing the runway issue was approved.

While Konicki said she was pleased with the outcome, she recognized it may not have any practical impact.

“Sadly, it means nothing in terms of affecting the displacement issues… or the issues that continue to plague the residents living around the airport, and it does nothing to impact the negative impact on business and the community,” she said.

When asked if she felt if this was a slippery slope leading to an eventual closing of the airport, Konicki said “many people feel that way. I’m absolutely concerned about that.” But she said when she talks to representatives from RIAC, “they sound sincere about wanting to keep the airport running.”