RIAC begins to shorten runways

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 12:30pm

The Rhode Island Airport Corporation has notified the Town of Westerly by letter that it will start displacing, or shortening, the landing space on two of the four runways at Westerly Airport. The letter arrived about two weeks after the Westerly Town Council took an official stand against displacing any of the runways.

The issue is of direct concern to Block Island, due to the route run by New England Airlines from the Island to Westerly for the past 50 years. A discussion on the runway situation is on the New Shoreham Town Council’s work session agenda for Wednesday, Jan. 10 at Town Hall at 4 p.m.

Bill Bendokas, co-owner of New England Airlines, said he saw that someone was working to remove paint from one of the runways at the Westerly Airport on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 3. “What they did was come and remove the painted numbers on one runway,” said Bendokas, “And now the next step is to displace the threshold by painting a line at where the artificial threshold will be, and moving the lighting to match the shorter runway.”

“RIAC has a continuing obligation to ensure the safety of pilots and the surrounding community,” the letter, which was sent to Westerly Town Manager Derrik Kennedy, and dated Jan. 3, stated. “As an interim measure to mitigate the safety issue, RIAC is in the process of temporarily displacing the Runway 7 threshold by 375 feet, and the Runway 14 threshold by 590 feet... The completion of this work is dependent upon the temperature and will be performed as soon as the weather permits.” The letter was written by RIAC counsel Annette P. Jacques.

The issue is the height of trees located on some surrounding private properties. The trees have grown into the airports approach space, causing aircraft to approach the runway at a higher angle.

“Please accept this letter in followup to our letter to you dated Dec. 15, 2017. The Rhode Island Airport Corporation has received and reviewed the consultant report that identifies vegetative obstructions that have grown tall enough to be penetrations into the approach surface for two of the four runway ends at Westerly Airport,” the letter states.

While noting that the Westerly Town Council did not want RIAC to displace any of the runways, and did not want to get involved in any lawsuit bwteen RIAC and the abutters who own the trees that have grown into the approach space, the RIAC letter stated, “The town’s letter implies that, while it will not be party to the lawsuit, it supports RIAC moving forward with the litigation to secure the State’s right to acquire the avigation easements by eminent domain. As stated in the December 15, 2017 letter, even with the town’s direction to maintain the full use of all runways, we must relocate threshold(s) immediately because the legal process necessary to secure the avigation easements will likely take a minimum of one year to resolve.”

New Shoreham First Warden Ken Lacoste put the item on the agenda for Wednesday’s work session, which will be the first meeting attended by Town Manager Ed Roberge. Item number two states: “Informational discussion with Lisa Konicki, President of Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, and Eric Thornberg, spokesperson for the Westerly Airport Association, regarding the issue of runway displacement at Westerly Airport.”

“This is an airport that’s been there in its current configuration since the 1940s,” said Bendokas. “But as far as this move by RIAC, the disappointing thing is that it was an overnight decision with no real notice to all of the people involved in these discussions. Everyone has asked for open communications with RIAC, both sides have said that RIAC is heavy-handed and does things behind closed doors. I have more or less backed RIAC, in things like meeting federal regulations and budgeting, and stuff like that, but then I see stuff like this.”

Bendokas pointed out that as soon as the runways are displaced, pilots can no longer use what is called an instrument approach to land. Instrument approaches are written by the Federal Aviation Adminsitration. “That will be cancelled until it can be rewritten by the FAA for the shortened runway. It’s also going to impact some planes that need the 4,000-foot runway,” Bendokas said.

In the end, Bendokas repeated what he has said before: “A longer runway is a safer runway.”

“Safety must be the primary concern, and with negotiations between RIAC and the neighbors broken down, there is no choice but to take this action at this time,” said Lisa Konicki, President of Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed the displacement of the runways. “We knew that time was of the essence which is why the Chamber applied appropriate pressure to the Westerly Town Council to respond to RIAC's requests to make the Town's position known. Ultimately, the Council made the vote to support the ongoing operations of the airport by opposing runway displacement, but it was too little too late.”