WESTERLY — The Town Council’s effort to chisel together a letter stating its views for the future of Westerly State Airport inched forward Monday when councilors agreed to submit their individual preferences to Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy, who will collate and present the ideas to the council for additional work at a future meeting.
After receiving another burst of citizens comments, the vast majority critical of the airport and the council, councilors took up the task of writing to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to state their desires for the airport. In short, RIAC has asked the council to state whether the council would like RIAC to proceed with plans to shorten an airport runway by displacing a portion of it or whether it prefers RIAC to resume efforts to remove trees on private property that are penetrating flight paths.
Councilors shared some of their ideas, questioned the point of the letter and whether RIAC is shirking its own responsibilities, and criticized the quasi-public agency which manages the airport for past perceived mistakes.
“RIAC committed a fatal error when it accepted federal funds but didn’t tell the town its plan. If they did that, discussions could have been had and the town would have known RIAC’s intent,” said Council Vice President Mario Celico, referring to RIAC’s acceptance of a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The grant provided funds for RIAC to remove obstacles in flight paths surrounding the airport and expires at the end of the year. Most of the obstacles are trees on private property. Rather than appear before the full council or schedule a public meeting, RIAC shared its plans with former Town Manager Michelle Buck and former Council President Christopher Duhamel and then initiated eminent domain proceedings against the property owners seeking easements to enter the properties at any time to remove trees. Some of the property owners resisted, filed a lawsuit, and obtained a temporary restraining order putting the tree removal operation on hold.
Some of the residents and Councilor Jean Gagnier discussed a recent meeting focused on the airport between Councilors Edward Morrone, William Aiello, Jack Carson and Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, who requested the session to share information she recently received. Gagnier asked the three councilors to share the information but they did not acknowledge Gagnier’s question. Konicki declined comment for this article and also declined to discuss the information she provided to the three councilors. On Friday, Morrone and Konicki also declined to disclose the information.
Paula Ruisi, a resident and dedicated critic of RIAC, questioned the need for the letter, saying the FAA will make the ultimate call on displacement of the runway and will direct it if it is the only means to protect the safety of pilots, passengers, and those on the ground near the airport. She also insisted the FAA would not order displacement of a runway if it would jeopardize safety.
Emilia Mascaro said low flying planes and jets have been a chronic problem at her Rock Ridge Road home in recent years. She issued a challenge to the council.
“Who will advocate for us? It was my understanding that you, our Town Council would advocate for us. Will you advocate for the 10 businesses at the airport or the hundreds of families and residents who elected you to represent us… tell RIAC you stand for the health, safety, and quality of life of our residents in Westerly,” Mascaro said.
Gagnier said he favors the airport remaining in its current condition, not the move toward displacing another runway. “I’ll support that, but ultimately it will be determined by the neighbors,” Gagnier said.
Aiello said he opposes displacement of the runway due to safety concerns. “We want to be both supportive of quality of life and airport operations,” Aiello said.
But he questioned why RIAC had tossed the tree issue onto the council. “The question of the obstacles is up to RIAC and the FAA, I don’t see it as a town responsibility and don’t appreciate RIAC asking us. It’s not our issue, it’s not our court case,” Aiello said.
Morrone asked for an opinion from Town Attorney William Conley Jr. on whether it is advisable for the council to write a letter at all while the airport neighbors’ court case is pending. Celico asked Morrone to e-mail his question to Conley, who was not in attendance.