WESTERLY — The Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce is continuing to call on the Town Council to publicly oppose plans to displace or reduce the intended usable size of two runways at Westerly State Airport.
Lisa Konicki, president of the chamber, made an impassioned plea to the council on Monday, saying failure to preserve the airport in its current configuration would seriously hurt 10 businesses. On Tuesday she pointed to an additional seven businesses that benefit from the airport.
“This is no game, the airport issue is as serious as they come,” Konicki told the council during her presentation. “The livelihood of 10 businesses and all their employees hang in the balance and will be affected by your leadership or lack thereof when it comes to this matter,” Konicki said.
The Rhode Island Airport Corporation acknowledged last month that it is studying displacing the threshold of two runways in light of failed efforts to remove trees on private property that are penetrating regulated airspace. The Federal Airport Administration asked RIAC to remove the trees as a condition of a grant it made to the quasi-public agency which manages the airport.
Some of the property owners have resisted RIAC’s efforts and petitioned a Superior Court judge to issue an injunction to stop the tree clearing until a trial can be held on the property owners’ claim that RIAC and the state misused eminent domain to take aviation easements to perform the tree work.
Konicki’s presentation was largely in response to recent comments from Hatsy Moore, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against RIAC, and Paula Ruisi, who has repeatedly complained about aircraft flying low over her Shepherd’s Run residence. Moore and Ruisi have at times described the airport issue as “a game.” Picking up on that characterization, Konicki deployed what she called an airport “Truth-O-Meter,” a board game-like device that used a spinning airplane as an indicator. Konicki ran through some of the comments made by the two women and spun the airplane’s nose to either the true or false reading on the meter.
“Week after week you are being hoodwinked. It’s chronically negative and it’s rhetoric that’s laced with gross exaggeration,” Konicki said.
Claims that the chamber has taken a position on proposed airport hazard overlay district zoning regulations are false, Konicki said. Instead, she said, the chamber has focused only on the size of the runways and their effect on businesses. Konicki also discussed the value of homes near the airport, saying many, including Ruisi’s and Moore’s, had appreciated significantly over the last 20 years. Ruisi, Moore and some of her co-plaintiffs have argued the tree clearing project would negatively effect the value of their homes. Other tree clearing projects have already occurred. Many residents also expressed concern that an early version of the proposed airport hazard overlay district zoning regulations would have led to a devaluing of their property.
Ruisi has often, including on Monday, floated a theory that RIAC and unnamed others have supported the tree clearing project as a means to support Charles “Chuck” Royce, the primary mover behind the renovation of the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn. They also accused the chamber of holding multiple events at the Ocean House. Konicki noted that the chamber held just 3 of 467 events at the Ocean House during the last 11 years. She praised Royce as “a kind-hearted philanthropist” and “visionary citizen.”
Konicki also noted that jets capable of seating up to 20 people have been landing at the airport for several years. Moore recently brought a large photograph of one of the jets to a council meeting.
The council, Konicki said, should write to RIAC and state opposition to shortening the runways. The letter should also note the Comprehensive Plan’s description of the airport as an important economic development asset and encourage RIAC to enter into good faith negotiations with the property owners to address the height of trees.
Dr. Philo Willetts said the property value increases cited by Konicki were misleading due to the effect of inflation. He urged local pilots to meet with property owners to work out an agreement.
“I do not advocate closing the airport,” Willetts said. “I’d like to see preservation of the light plane use of our airport. I and hundreds of our neighbors only want peaceful enjoyment of our beloved homes,” Willetts said.
On Monday, the council voted 4-3 in favor of scheduling a public hearing on the proposed airport zoning regulations for Dec. 18. Councilors Edward Morrone, William Aiello, Karen Cioffi and Philip Overton voted in favor. Councilors Jean Gagnier, Jack Carson, and Mario Celico were opposed.
Ruisi lambasted the council for scheduling a public hearing to be held one week before Christmas and said the proposed regulations had not been properly reviewed.
“There is too much we don’t know and too many of our concerns have not been addressed,” Ruisi said.
Moore agreed with Ruisi, saying the most recent iteration of the regulations had not been reviewed by the Planning Board.
Carson called for holding off on consideration of the regulations until the lawsuit is resolved. He also called for compromise between RIAC and the neighbors who are fighting the tree-clearing project and asked residents to refrain from “sarcasm and false accusations.” If RIAC insists on clear cutting rather than removing a few trees and trimming others, then Carson said he would favor displacing the runways.
Gagnier joined Carson in addressing the nature of the discourse and questioned the strong local and national opposition to the concept of compromise. “We all have to work together so let’s all try to be a little nicer,” Gagnier said.
Morrone said the airport plays a critical role for people in need of medical care who are flown over from Block Island.