On Jan. 11 a story ran in The Sun on the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC’s) view of the Comprehensive Plan currently under review and revision. The article referred to a letter recently sent by RIAC to Westerly’s town planner, Nancy Letendre. RIAC wants to ensure that a state-required Airport Overlay District is added to Westerly’s zoning ordinance and that it is enforced. RIAC points out that had Westerly already had one, there would be no dispute about eminent domain and the cutting of trees.
The final line of the article says that the “economic impact” of the airport was an estimated $16 million in 2016 versus $8.4 million in 2006. This impact is not defined. It certainly isn’t gross revenue to the town of Westerly. RIAC would do well to not toss around apocryphal and/or irrelevant numbers.
One thing is for sure, $16 million per year for a footprint of 317 acres is paltry, at best. As a rule of thumb, for each 10 acres that undergoes commercial development, one can target 100,000 square feet of development at $15/year lease value. Additionally, the businesses themselves want lease costs to be 3-4% of business revenue. This calculates out to $30-$40 million per 10 acres. So, if 50 of the 317 acres were for commercial uses, the “economic impact” would be near $200 million per year. This is more than 10 times $16 million.
Not in the Saturday article, but related, the Chamber of Commerce’s comments regarding Westerly Airport in Westerly’s draft Comprehensive Plan include that the airport supports 15 businesses and is “critical for tourism.” According to the Chamber, the runways should be reinstated (and thus homeowners’ trees should be cut) and a restaurant and welcome center should be built.
The Chamber is obliged to explain how a tourism industry actually driven by people arriving by car, some by train, some from long distances at T.F. Green, Hartford Bradley or Boston Logan airports finds small-plane sightseeing junkets to Block Island “critical.” Certainly, the Chamber can see that commercial use of the footprint as cited above would be far more economically impactful. How is the sacrifice of mixed-use and commercial development less valuable to Westerly than the 15 businesses and $16 million/year currently supported?
What is critical to the comprehensive plan is finding more acreage for mixed-use and residential development, acreage that generates significant economic activity (not just $16 million) and the jobs, incomes and local taxes that come with it.
According to RIAC’s letter, “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 ....”
If “economic impact” is the measure, Westerly would be best served by making commercial use of the land rather than tourism flights. We certainly shouldn’t be — passively or not — enabling or engaging with RIAC in an eminent domain activity so longer runways can support the jets of the one-tenth of the 1 percent. How is it in the interests of the town to subject local landowners to eminent domain processes for reasons like these? How is that respectful of the Westerly citizens we serve?
If there’s something else that’s “critical,” it should be laid out and compared with other uses. Denver’s experience with the decommissioning of Stapleton Airport shows what can be done (albeit on a somewhat different scale). Whatever the rationale was when the Westerly airport was started, over 80 years ago, those reasons are not today’s reasons. Keep the helicopters, even invest in them, if emergency support to Block Island residents is the issue. Maybe keep a shorter runway for private and small-scale aviation.
My observation is Westerly may well be best off with an airport-limiting/restricting zoning overlay — one that favors local abutters’ rights, one that encourages better economic use of the footprint. The airport zoning overlay support only documented, analyzed, discussable needs of Westerly that compare favorably with other potential land uses.
The writer is a member of the town’s Zoning Board of Review.