WESTERLY — The Rhode Island Airport Corporation, in comments submitted recently on proposed revisions to the town's Comprehensive Plan, pointed out the importance of municipal zoning enforcement and called for additional references in the document to Westerly State Airport, which it operates.
Town officials sought comments on the plan from Nov. 4-Dec.19, and the Town Council is expected to receive an update on the revision process during its meeting on Monday. Comments were sought from residents, businesses, organizations, and other interests.
The current Comprehensive Plan dates to 2010. The council will conduct public hearings on the new plan before voting to approve it. The plan will then be submitted for consideration to the state Department of Administration's Division of Statewide Planning.
RIAC's comments are contained in a letter from Daniel Porter, the corporation's vice president for planing, to Town Planner Nancy Letendre.
The revised plan notes that an Airport Overlay District has been added in the municipal zoning regulations. In his comments, Porter praised the town for creating the district and stressed the need to enforce its provisions. "It is equally important to enforce the overlay zoning to ensure safe operation of the Westerly State Airport as well as to maintain the current utility of the airport." Rhode Island law requires municipalities with state airports to develop overlay districts to "establish an airport hazard area to specify appropriate land uses with restricted heights for buildings and trees," according to the revised plan.
In his letter Porter noted that new construction has been proposed at the Westerly Crossings shopping center, which is within the airport's runway protection zone, and that the project has been approved by the Planning Board. He also noted that RIAC is embroiled in a lawsuit filed on behalf of four Westerly property owners who argue that the corporation and other state agencies improperly took aviation easements on their property in order to clear trees that RIAC says pose a threat to safe flying in the area.
"This lawsuit pertains to trees that have grown to a height whereby they are now obstructions," Porter wrote. "Should an overlay district have been prepared and enforced in previous years, prior correction and mitigation may have prevented the magnitude of the subject obstructions."
A section of the revised plan describes concerns about the airport raised by residents between 2016 and 2018. "It is unclear what the town might be able to do about the impact of airport operations on private land uses surrounding the airport ... The entire dispute is complicated by the fact that there are no authoritative data on historic or recent changes to airport infrastructure use," part of the revised plan says.
Porter, in a response to the plan's discussion of the property owners' concerns and the lawsuit, clarified the issues raised in the lawsuit and noted that runways have been shortened and that the corporation recently had to return grant funds to the Federal Aviation Administration because it was unable to mitigate the hazards posed by trees. Porter also said that Block Island State Airport will likely experience a negative effect as the type and number of aircraft able to operate at Westerly State Airport is reduced.
"If additional obstructions are identified, RIAC may be forced to further reduce runways lengths to mitigate. The utility of Westerly State Airport is in jeopardy and will continue to diminish without course correction ... The town has an opportunity to discuss these challenges and potentially define supporting roles and actions within the Comprehensive Plan," Porter wrote.
Porter also suggested additional references to Westerly State Airport in sections of the plan that discuss transportation. He added that the economic impact of the airport was an estimated $16 million in 2016, compared with $8.4 million in 2006.