RIAC says no parking fees until September
The Town Council met on June 2 to receive an update from Rhode Island Airport Corporation on proposed changes to the Block Island State Airport as part of RIAC’s General Aviation Strategic Business Plan. RIAC is responsible for all six state airports in Rhode Island, including T.F. Green Airport (PVD) as well as the five smaller general aviation airports in Quonset, Newport, Westerly, Smithfield, and Block Island.
In general, RIAC’s position is that the five smaller airports are not financially self-sufficient, requiring large annual subsidies from the revenue generated by T.F. Green. As such, part of the stated purpose of the General Aviation Strategic Business Plan is to bring each of the five smaller airports into financial self-sufficiency.
At the meeting, RIAC’s Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President Brian Schattle spent a good deal of time discussing all the revenue streams RIAC misses out on by operating in the State of Rhode Island as opposed to operating in neighboring states. These missing revenue streams were mentioned at least six different times by Schattle and the other RIAC representatives during the meeting. Apparently, in other states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, aviators pay a state aviation fuel tax that Rhode Island does not charge. Other states also have higher fuel flowage fees and higher registration fees. Rhode Island also does not charge landing fees to planes registered in Rhode Island, although Connecticut does not charge landing fees to any non-revenue producing aircraft piloted by individuals with Sport, Recreational, or Private Pilot Certification, regardless of state registration.
RIAC maintains these “lost revenue streams” create a difficult financial burden for them to bear.
First Warden Andre Boudreau had attempted early on in the conversation to skip to the part everyone wanted to hear about, namely the proposal to institute parking fees at the Block Island Airport and Westerly Airport, but RIAC’s spokespeople wanted to make sure everyone understood the difficult position they are put in by operating in a state like Rhode Island that does not charge as many fees to the aviation community as RIAC wishes.
Boudreau wanted to get to the parking scheme as that had been on everyone’s mind since the news broke a couple of weeks ago that RIAC was considering instituting parking fees. During the meeting RIAC expressed their displeasure with the previously leaked news almost as often as they referenced their missing revenue streams.
After explaining to the Town Council, and any residents who were listening in, that parking on Block Island in general and the airport specifically has been an issue for years, Schattle finally allayed the community’s fears of a parking fee plan by saying, “there will not be any institution of this plan over the summer.”
Council Member Keith Stover was not going to let Schattle off the hook so easily, however, explaining that it appeared that RIAC viewed the general aviation community as their constituency rather than the Block Island community. Stover said the airport “constitutes a lifeline for the entire community,” citing emergency flights for medical procedures, medical prescriptions, and essential medical appointments.
Stover also declared: “Transparency is not something you are simply because you declare that you are, and we have had a couple of surprises over the past month that really concern me.” Stover then asked the RIAC contingency once again who they viewed as their stakeholders.
RIAC spokesman John Goodman fielded the question for RIAC, stating that they are in a tough spot with the aviation groups who think “we are way too much on the side of the community,” but admitted “the public good is the constituency here.” He went on to acknowledge that the airport is a lifeline for Block Island, and sustainability is vitally important.
Goodman then confirmed that they do not actually have a parking proposal, but when they do they will be happy to share it with everyone.
Peter Eichleay, president of Flight Level, the company preparing the proposal on behalf of RIAC, joined the meeting, agreeing with Goodman that it was a “work in process.” He said they had been “communicating with stakeholders pretty much since our contract began in July of 2018.”
Eichleay then communicated to this particular Block Island community of stakeholders, “when you’ve had something for free for a really long time, sometimes you’re never going to be happy that now you have to pay.”
Council Member Martha Ball brought everyone back to reality by pointing out that while everyone is talking about parking, there is not actually a proposal “to put our hands on.” She asked where they are in the process, saying she had nothing actually in her packet about parking. “We’re reacting to things that don’t exist,” Ball said.
Boudreau said he and the other councilors had been “bombarded” with emails and messages regarding parking and “we didn’t know anything about it.” He went on to lament the communication breakdown between what Flight Level is doing, what RIAC is doing, and how the town is affected. He said, “we get the information from anxious residents,” and wanted to find a way to keep that from continuing to happen.
Ball asked again what exactly was going on, what the proposal was, was it written down, and was it still fluid?
Schattle responded that the plan was still being developed as Flight Level prepared their recommendation, and the plan would be rolled out when it was finalized.
Town Manager Maryanne Crawford attempted to nail down some specifics about the parking proposal, asking about the potential start date of September 1, which would create a 90-day timeline. She also asked about different types of parking under consideration, like daily rates and long-term, seasonal and annual, before finally asking: “When will you be prepared to come back to the Council with a more definitive plan? Are you still looking at a September 1 implementation date?”
Schattle responded that they should have the recommendation from Flight Level “very shortly” and would roll the plan out publicly over the summer.
Ball pressed the issue again, asking “Do you mean roll out a proposal or roll out a done deal?”
Schattle answered, “We will roll out a program based on a proposal that we have from Flight Level.”
Boudreau said, “So to answer Council Member Ball’s question, you will be rolling out a done deal, after input from events like tonight.”
Schattle then said they would share the proposed plan with the council before rolling out a done deal.
Potential leasing of airport land
One other part of RIAC’s General Aviation Strategic Business Plan raised both eyebrows and concerns among the citizenry: the real estate brochure from Cushman and Wakefield and Hayes and Sherry that was included with the RIAC presentation. The brochure advertises 11.4 acres of airport land for lease, divided into four sections. The first section, listed at 4.75 acres, is located across Center Road from the terminal and runway, though it is still part of the airport property, Plat 17, Lot 1 and Lot 2. The brochure lists outdoor storage, office space, and green energy initiatives as non-aviation uses for this section. The brochure advertises several aviation uses for the remaining three sections, two of which are adjacent to the hangar area with the third, and largest, section located across the runway from the terminal. These aviation uses include new hangars, an aircraft sales center, and an aircraft service center.
Kristen Baumann called into the meeting to ask if the proposal RIAC was planning to bring to the town council included plans for the things mentioned in the brochure.
Schattle stated the brochure “is a notice of availability,” and identifies “potential uses,” further explaining that any leasing would be done through Hayes and Sherry and there are no leasing proposals at this time.
Crawford asked if there was a due date for the solicitations for leasing or if it was a “rolling process” She also questioned if proposed uses would be vetted to the public before or after a deal was made.
Council Member Mark Emmanuelle pointed out that the land listed in the brochure was in the Residential A Zone, which he said meant, “you can’t develop that in any way, shape, or form commercially without going through the process of Planning Board, Zoning Board, etc.” Emmanuelle then asked: “Are you familiar with that?”
Schattle confirmed that any development or interest would go through the proper process, including appropriate zoning and permitting.
Boudreau closed out this portion of the meeting devoted to the RIAC spokespeople by reminding them that while the Town Council does want to “move forward” and “progress” with them, the more information they could provide the better, saying “communication is the key, good honest communication.”