RIAC, faced with antagonism, says closing airport is a ‘real option’
RIAC, faced with antagonism, says closing airport is a ‘real option’
A plane gets ready to land on a runway at the Westerly State Airport in March 2016. Sun file photo
August 7, 2017 01:36PM
By Dale P. Faulkner
Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — Stymied for two years in its effort to remove trees it says are a hazard for aircraft, and reeling from a steady barrage of criticism, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation says it will consider all possible solutions to balance the desires of residents with the needs of pilots who use Westerly State Airport, including possibly closing the facility.
News that RIAC and town officials had recently discussed closing the airport is drawing responses ranging from alarm to skepticism.
Foremost among the alarmed is Shirlyne Gobern, Block Island’s interim town manager.
“That would be devastating to the island,” Gobern said.
Block Island depends on flights to the airport, provided by New England Airlines, to take people in need of medical attention to Westerly. Plumbers, electricians, and other service providers fly to the island.
“It’s a lifeline ... my heart is racing talking about it,” Gobern said.
Closure of the airport would have a discernible negative effect on the local economy, said Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce.
“The Westerly airport is integral to the local economy. Closure would have a dramatic negative affect on the town of Westerly in terms of jobs and business-support services, as well as recreational activities,” Konicki said.
In addition to the services cited by Gobern, Konicki said the airport gives local restaurants the ability to fly meals to the island, serves as a center for aviation lessons, is used by recreational pilots, and recently became host to both skydiving and helicopter-tour businesses. Summer residents and business people also use the airport, Konicki said.
Last year, RIAC, the state agency that manages the airport, reported that an economic impact analysis revealed that its five general-aviation airports have a direct and indirect impact on the state economy of more than $200 million, including 1,500 jobs. Of the total economic impact, Westerly State Airport’s contribution was pegged at $16 million annually and almost 100 direct and indirect jobs.
Looking for answers
In May, a RIAC senior vice president, Alan R. Andrade, told Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy that the quasi-public agency would consider closing the airport.
“Given the amount of negative attention and consternation the airport seems to bring to each and every Town Hall meeting, the best solution may be to close the airport. Please know that closing the airport is a real option for RIAC,” Andrade wrote in a May 24 email to Kennedy.
RIAC needs an understanding of “what the town wants for an airport,” Andrade said, adding that RIAC has historically tried to maintain the airport as it currently exists in accordance with policies it consents to when receiving grants from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“To do so requires impacts to private property surrounding the airport. This approach has painted RIAC as being problematic and inconsiderate to the community. Please know that we will do whatever the town asks of us, but I need an answer soon. We are under pressure from the FAA to address the known hazards that currently exist to the existing runway approach surfaces,” Andrade wrote.
Trees on private property in the approach zones to the airport’s four runways must be removed, RIAC says. The corporation took easements to gain perpetual access to property owned by several residents to remove the trees, but the tree-clearing project was put on hold in February when a Superior Court judge granted an injunction sought by property owners to temporarily stop the project. The property owners’ underlying case, in which they claim RIAC misused the eminent domain process, is pending.
Last week a RIAC spokeswoman, in a statement to The Sun, reiterated Andrade’s comments. Patti Goldstein said Andrade was communicating with Kennedy in support of RIAC President and CEO Iftikhar Ahmad’s approach of working with local communities “to engage the elected officials and the community in constructive communication to balance their needs with those of the pilot community. We have had some discussions with Mr. Kennedy relative to obstruction removal versus continuing the discussion in the courts. We want to make it clear that RIAC is open to all their suggestions, even if it means closing the airport.”
Ahmad started his job in October.
Kennedy said he recently met with RIAC officials to gain a better understanding of the corporation’s plans for the airport and surrounding area and will soon report his findings to the Town Council and see how the council wants to proceed.
“The airport has tremendous value to the town and its business, tourist, and residential communities as well as to Block Island and its residents. Closing the airport would have an immediate, negative economic impact on the town and our sister community, Block Island, as the airport is a vital lifeline to the island,” Kennedy said.
Bill Bendokas, who owns New England Airlines, said RIAC’s references to closing the airport might be exaggerations.
“I think the comments you’ve heard are more of almost a knee-jerk reaction. I think RIAC is frustrated because they are trying hard to be good neighbors,” he said.
Contrary to popular opinion, Bendokas said the airport is not used solely by Watch Hill property owners or guests of the Ocean House but instead by a broader segment of the region’s population. Closing the airport would be a significant blow to the region’s economic structure, he said.
“It’s a way of life for a lot of people to get to and from Block Island. It’s the lifeblood of a part of the community carried back and forth through that airport,” Bendokas said.
Gregory Massad, the attorney for property owners who obtained the tree-clearing injunction, said his clients are not intent on having the airport closed.
“I don’t think it’s anything that my clients have sought. I think the issue is the economic viability of that airport in its historic place. My clients want it to remain a small airport for local flights but it’s turned into a place with different types of planes and increased activity,” Massad said. The agency, he said, “is trying to fit more and more into a small little airport.”
Massad contends that the tree-clearing project would allow for new types of landings, which he says would lead to an intensified use or expansion of the facility. RIAC has consistently denied Massad’s assertion, saying, instead, that the trees must be removed in order for the FAA to allow the airport to continue in its current configuration.
Massad said his clients’ case is continuing, and he will soon seek a judge’s permission to amend the original complaint to add claims for financial damages arising from the taking of the easements through eminent domain, and for other damages arising from RIAC’s actions.
Mario Celico, Town Council vice president, said that rather than the town telling RIAC what it wants, the agency should clearly communicate its future plans for the facility with town officials. While closing the airport “would be terrible because it contributes to the economy of our community,” Celico said it might be appropriate for town officials to study the possibility of the airport becoming a municipal endeavor.
“Is it possible for us to have a municipal airport that the town controls completely? That way we’d still have a link to Block Island, which I think is critical,” Celico said.
The town’s Comprehensive Plan, which sets out development and preservation goals and priorities, seems to capture the tension surrounding the airport.
“The airport has the potential for a larger role in the economy although proximity to residential areas presents challenges to any expansion of services,” a section of the plan reads.
A revision of the Comprehensive Plan is underway. Gail Mallard, chairwoman of the citizens advisory committee working on the revision, said the committee had not yet signed off on any potential revisions to the sections of the plan pertaining to the airport. “We have had a number of neighbors of the airport attend our meetings to express their concerns about the airport,” she said.
For RIAC and the town and its residents to coexist will require communication and compromise, said Konicki. In 2014 RIAC cleared a swath of trees on the chamber’s town-owned office property on Route 1. The chamber expressed opposition to the project and asked instead if the trees could be trimmed periodically. RIAC refused the trimming request, but Konicki said the corporation communicated regularly and did not interfere with chamber operations during its business hours.
RIAC provided wood chips that the chamber requested for a walking path and agreed to assist the chamber’s promotional activities by displaying a tourist magazine at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick.
“I understand that residents have had negative experiences communicating with RIAC, but the Chamber has not. While we definitely do not always get what we want, we are appreciative of this valuable resource and understand the need to compromise to support safety and preserve the present level of operations,” Konicki said.