A historic cemetery, and possibly as many as two others, could pose problems for the extension of Green Airport’s main runway.
The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) needs city approval to alter or move the colonial-era cemeteries that may also include the remains of Native Americans. With Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issuance of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) favoring the longer runway, RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon is looking to start the permit process even though RIAC won’t have a record of decision until next month.
Tuesday night Dillon appeared before the Warwick Historic Cemetery Commission, anxious to open dialogue on the options for Historic Cemetery #26 located just off Main Avenue within the airport fence.
“We know right now that [the runway extension] is going to be impacted,” he said. The cemetery is not in the path of the runway, but it is within the “free of objects” area. That means head stones need to be level with the ground or removed to meet FAA guidelines.
The other two cemeteries are close to the suggested path of a relocated Main Avenue, which will have to be undertaken if the runway is to be extended to 8,700 feet. These cemeteries also date back to colonial times. Surveys in the area have uncovered a deposit of shells that could indicate Native American activity in the area and prompt speculation of Native American burials as well.
Dillon believes plans for the road can be engineered so as not to affect the two cemeteries. On the other hand, there’s no such option to relocate the runway, he said. Also, he is doubtful the FAA would grant a waiver to the free of object area.
But even with the favorable EIS, the runway extension is not a given.
Dillon does not want to spend money for additional cemetery studies that could define the exact boundaries of each of the plots until the record of decision. And even with a decision from the FAA to build the extension, RIAC will need to secure federal funding for the work. RIAC must wait until next March to apply for funding. A decision is not expected until August of next year.
City Planner William DePasquale was wary of the information made available so far. He called the “analysis reasonably thorough” adding that RIAC “hasn’t fully disclosed the impact.” He spoke of “anomalies” that showed up with ground radar tests in the vicinity of Cemetery #77 on the south side of Main Avenue between Graham and Greeley Avenues.
“All we’re saying is [for the studies] to go a little bit further than they are,” he said.
That had some commission members questioning why a more extensive study hadn’t been done as part of the EIS and now that that has been finalized whether they have any role in the outcome.
“Our recommendations to you are for naught,” said commission chair Pegee Malcolm, “it wouldn’t make a hill of beans of difference.”
Richard Doucette, FAA's environmental program manager for New England, disagreed.
He said commission approval is a city ordinance and not a federal requirement. It therefore was not part of the EIS.
“The EIS doesn’t take away any of your authority,” said Dillon.
The commission was told the cemetery within the free of objects area could be addressed without any subsurface impact. Moving the cemetery is an option, but one Dillon would prefer to avoid.
He said after the meeting that the head stones could be relocated and placed as they are presently configured at a location on airport property accessible to the public.
In response to Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, Dillon said that he not only “intends” but “will” work hand-in-hand with the commission on a resolution.
“At the end of the day the commission sets the parameters of approval,” he said.
Richard Langseth, who follows airport developments, had reservations, especially to the extent of the cemeteries that aren’t fully defined.
“The culture is far more important [than a longer runway]. Let’s be sensitive to the people,” he said.
Doucette said everything required by the commission and the Narragansett Indians will be done.
And what if the commission doesn’t approve a plan? Dillon was asked this at the end of the meeting.
He said the commission would “have to have reasonable grounds” for its findings. But he thinks there are solutions.
“There are reasonable alternatives,” he maintained.