WESTERLY — Town Manager J. Mark Rooney and his staff will work with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation on its general aviation strategic business plan now that the Town Council has authorized the assistance.
Rooney, during the council's Nov. 18 meeting, asked the council for a consensus authorization to work with RIAC, which manages Westerly State Airport and four other general aviation airports in the state, after RIAC wrote to Rooney asking for assistance with the strategic business plan. The same letter, signed by Iftikhar Ahmad, RIAC president and CEO, also asked the town to "join with RIAC in ongoing litigation to ensure we protect the continued beneficial and safe use of Rhode Island General Aviation Airports."
RIAC is being sued by four Westerly property owners who claim the corporation and other state agencies acted improperly when they took, by eminent domain, aviation easements associated with the owners' property to clear trees identified as obstructions to safe air travel near the airport. The easements, if upheld, give RIAC the right to enter the private property at any time to remove obstructions.
Delays caused by the lawsuit prompted RIAC to displace, or shorten, the length of two runways early last year. In his letter, Ahmad says additional steps may have to be taken at Westerly and Newport State Airport, where similar obstructions exist.
"The airspace analysis ... is already identifying additional obstructions at the airports, thus amplifying the problem. Without a clear ruling on the litigation, airport utility will continue to diminish," Ahmad said.
Rooney said town staff would have a limited focus.
"Staff is just looking for the endorsement of the economic development section. The section where they ask the town to join in the lawsuit in RIAC's favor, against the opposition to the tree cutting, we don' t want to touch that aspect of it at all — just the economic section to continue to partner for business development," Rooney said.
After Town Council discussion related to the letter from Ahmad, council President Christopher Duhamel informed Rooney that the council had agreed by consensus, although no vote was taken and not all of the councilors participated in the discussion.
"We have a consensus to work with RIAC," Duhamel said.
Ahmad's letter drew criticism from Gregory Massad, the lawyer for the four property owners suing RIAC. The letter, Massad said, includes "misinformation" and "inaccuracies" that misled the Town Council and is evidence of RIAC's "same old bully tactics."
The letter, Massad noted, uses the words "taken" and "granted" to describe how the avigation easements were obtained. "Not true, they were not granted, they were taken," Massad said.
The letter also suggests, Massad said, that RIAC took the easements to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. While RIAC is required to abide by certain grant assurances to receive federal funding, FAA regulations do not require eminent domain takings, he said. Massad also rejected Ahmad's assertion that Massad's clients were offered fair market value for the easements, saying an expert will testify in the court case that the offers were too low.
William Fischer, RIAC spokesman, disputed Massad's allegation of misinformation in a response to questions sent by e-mail.
"There are and there have been obstructions that penetrate regulated air space at Westerly State Airport. These obstructions have impacted the use of Westerly State Airport as RIAC has been forced to reduce available runway landing lengths to comply with FAA regulations. This matter will only get worse over time if easements are not acquired, and additional runway shortening could become necessary," Fischer said.
RIAC, Fischer said, "follows FAA guidance with regard to property appraisal to determine fair market value for easement acquisition."
"The bottom line is that a small handful of residents have decided they can dictate the future of Westerly’s airport. RIAC’s role is not to determine the size and scope of general aviation airports, but to work with all elected officials and community stakeholders to make this determination. This is why RIAC has initiated a strategic business plan process for all five of Rhode Island’s general aviation airports. We look forward to scheduling a meeting early next year to hear the opinions of the entire community on this matter," Fischer said in the email.
RIAC first announced in March that it would undertake a multi-year strategic business and master planning process that would include the formation of local committees with town managers and other officials and stakeholders, including neighbors, airport tenants, business owners, tourism officials, members of the General Assembly and members of the general aviation community.
In his letter to Rooney, Ahmad says the effects of the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Westerly property owners are "sprawling and now beginning to impact additional airports." The letter goes on to say. "Trees and airports simply do not mix and we do not believe stakeholders are apprised of the dynamics and widespread implication unfolding. This is why RIAC feels it necessary to ensure that all stakeholders, including neighbors and the community, have their voices heard on this matter. The solution is to establish a strategic plan that we can all work towards."
To comply with assurances it makes in order to receive Federal Aviation Administration grants, RIAC is required to mitigate hazards to protect aircraft operations. If trees and other hazards cannot be removed, RIAC must address the situation by other means, including displacing or shortening runways, which has occurred at Westerly both because of the lawsuit and, once, prior to the lawsuit. Additionally, if RIAC cannot remove the hazards, it must return funds assigned for that purpose to FAA, as it did recently. RIAC sent a check to the FAA on Oct. 11 in the amount of $92,812.00, returning funds that had been assigned for obstruction removal at Westerly State Airport from a grant issued by the FAA in the amount of $421,280, Fischer said.
According to Ahmad's letter, runways at Newport State Airport will soon have to shortened or displaced because of trees/obstructions, and navigational aids there have been shut off because of the obstructions. Massad, during a recent telephone interview, questioned the suggestion that his clients' lawsuit is to blame for the situation in Newport. Instead, Massad said, a resident of Newport and her lawyer have raised concerns similar to the ones raised by his clients.
The problems in Newport and at other airports in the state are due to RIAC's "conduct and how they are doing business. It's the same old bully tactics. If these issues were easy or simple this case would be over by now," Massad said.
The general aviation strategic business plan will, according to Ahmad's letter, include development of a 10-year plan assessing the condition of airport infrastructure and assigning priority to necessary improvements. Associated cost estimates and potential funding sources will also be identified. A 10-year assessment of airfield, roadway and parking-area pavement will also be conducted. The business plan will also include an updated airspace analysis plan to identify current obstructions.
Finally, the business plan effort will attempt to establish partnerships with municipalities and pilots' organizations and others who have an interest in the airports and the ongoing litigation.
Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said working with RIAC would be useful as work on a revision of the town's Comprehensive Plan continues.
"We don't know what all the future restrictions are, we need to have RIAC's input on that ... and then the council will make that decision in the Comprehensive Plan. ... There are questions that are left that the council is going to need answers for. Working with the expert — RIAC in this case — is only going to help. We need to be informed," Duhamel said.
Councilor Sharon Ahern said she was concerned town staff might be inadvertently drawn into the litigation and noted that some of the issues in the lawsuit pertain to the airport's economic development role and the number of flights into and out of the airport.
"I'm just saying that until such time as those lawsuits are resolved, personally I'm not comfortable endorsing any of this," Ahern said.
Town Attorney William Conley Jr., responding to Ahern, said the Town Council would have final authority on the Comprehensive Plan, but Ahern was discussing Ahmad's letter, not the town plan.
One councilor said Ahmad's letter suggests a new approach by RIAC.
"I see this letter as an attempt to reach out and build communication," Councilor William Aiello said.
Councilor Brain McCuin predicted RIAC would eventually win the lawsuit and be granted the authority to remove obstructions, including the trees on private property. While noise from planes can be a nuisance, McCuin said the town is fortunate to have an airport.
"We have a train station and we have an airport. Lots of town don't have that. We have a lot of assets in this town," McCuin said.
Christine Vitt, RIAC vice president and chief infrastructure officer, who attended the Town Council meeting, said RIAC wants to hear from the council.
"We need to listen to you. We need to understand what you want your airport to be, what services it needs to provide, what it needs to provide to the state and maybe what it needs to provide to Block Island," Vitt said.
Block Island relies on planes that depart from Westerly for a host of services.
One of the themes supporting the lawsuit is Massad's contention that removal of the trees from his clients' property would lead to an increase in the number of flights into and out of Westerly State Airport.
"These are not easy issues when you have an airport in the middle of neighborhoods. The airport certainly is an asset. My clients don't want to close it, but they don't want it to intensify either," Massad said.