standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council appears poised to take a stance on proposed legislation that the Rhode Island Airport Corporation said would clarify the state's ability to keep airspace free of hazardous obstructions such as trees.

On Monday the council briefly discussed Councilor Sharon Ahern's proposal to approve a resolution announcing the council's opposition to the  "Preservation of Safe Airspace" bill. The council appeared to agree on taking up Ahern's idea at a meeting in the future, although when a vote was called none of the councilors spoke to say either "yes" or "no" and votes were not counted by the council or town employees.

In October the council voted to deny RIAC's request for it to write a letter in support of the bill. More recently, Ahern asked the council to go a step further and approve a resolution in opposition to the bill.

John Goodman, RIAC spokesman, spoke to the council by phone Monday and said the bill would "not give new powers to the state but only clarify language that the state is able to mitigate airspace hazards."

Ahern disagreed with Goodman's explanation, saying the bill would take away the the town's authority to regulate airspace.

"If this bill is signed it will be sacrificing local control," Ahern said.

The municipalities of Warwick and Middletown have already formally stated their opposition to the bill, Ahern noted.

The question of whether the state has the right to mitigate airspace hazards is a central one in a lawsuit  filed by four Westerly property owners against RIAC. The lawsuit claims RIAC and the state Department of Transportation lacked proper authority to take avigation easements to remove trees from the property owners' land. The case is pending in Superior Court and the trees have been left standing at least until the lawsuit is resolved.

Current state law, Ahern said, includes a provision for "local control." The bill supported by RIAC, Ahern said, would also undermine the town's zoning regulations. The resolution would let the town's state legislators know the council's stance, Ahern said.

In July an amended version of the bill was approved by the state Senate by a 35-1 vote, with two senators not voting. The council resolution would be aimed at a state House of Representatives version of the bill.

Councilors Brian McCuin and William Aiello said they were hesitant to vote on Ahern's proposal because they were not provided with a copy of the proposed bill. The bill was attached to a previous council agenda.

On Monday, the council met in its workshop, or Committee of the Whole, mode. Binding votes can only be taken in regular meetings of the council. The vote called on Monday was to consider taking the issue up at a regular meeting.

McCuin also questioned whether the town truly has the authority that Ahern said it has.

"I don't know how the town has control over people's trees," McCuin said.

While RIAC has "mishandled" how it proceeds in the past, McCuin said the agency is simply trying to carry out a basic function.

"For safety, they want to cut the trees. That's all," McCuin said.

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