The memorandum of understanding reached between the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and a City Council subcommittee sets deadlines for the acquisition of residential and business properties should RIAC move forward with the extension of the main runway and improved safety areas to its shorter crosswind runway.
In addition to the MOU, which in some ways mirrors an agreement reached by the city administration and RIAC almost two years ago and rejected by the council, sets forth a plan for the relocation of the playing fields at Winslow Park and an extension of air quality monitoring.
Camille Vella-Wilkinson, chair of the council litigation committee, and members Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) and Council President Bruce Place (D-Ward 2) outlined the broad concepts of the memorandum in an executive session of the council Monday night. Those agreements were worked out last week after three days of intensive talks with RIAC.
However, the document was not finalized as of yesterday afternoon, leaving those who have followed airport developments guessing the specifics of what was to come before the council last night. Nonetheless, the stage was set for the council to act on the memorandum. And, assuming they drop the court challenge to the FAA decision approving the runway and other improvements, all of the parties can execute a settlement agreement.
That agreement is also subject to FAA approval.
As best could be determined from interviews with those familiar with the MOU, the document establishes buy-out dates for properties affected by the projects. This was a concern of Merolla who was critical that, in prior expansion projects, RIAC had identified homes for acquisition but delayed the process by as much as 15 years.
Health issues were also raised by the council and, reportedly, the memorandum contains the agreement for RIAC to continue air quality monitoring at the existing four locations beyond the statutory limitation of 2015 to 2017.
Relocation of the ball fields, one of the touchiest of issues, offers two possible venues – RIAC-owned land in the Lakeside neighborhood or at the Knight Campus of CCRI. The plan calls for the relocation of one large and two smaller soccer fields and four regulation and two instructional softball fields that presently are on airport property in an area to be impacted by the southerly extension of Runway 5-23. RIAC wants to relocate the fields regardless of the runway extension.
Should either location be unacceptable, the city will have an additional 120 days to come up with an alternative site. Apparently, the agreement contains nothing about field lights. Also, fields relocated to CCRI could pose questions about where leagues could run concessions on state property.
An element of urgency surrounded approval of the memorandum, as today is this year’s deadline for RIAC submission for funding of the airport runway projects. RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon said last week that he would apply for the funding even if the council had not acted to drop its litigation, but with an MOU he would have justification to seek funds for some of the projects the council is looking for.
The RIAC board is slated to meet this morning at 9:15 to consider the memorandum.
As the council rejected the memorandum between Mayor Scott Avedisian and RIAC, had it not initiated legal action, the airport could have proceeded without an agreement. While that can be viewed as a positive outcome of the action, litigation will incur a cost. What that cost will be is unknown.
More significantly, the council found itself as the target of a campaign mounted by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the trades and construction unions to drop its suit because the projects are needed to create jobs and build the infrastructure needed for the future. Joining that chorus were Governor Lincoln Chafee, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Senator Jack Reed. Avedisian urged the council to reach an agreement.
Although secrecy surrounded the talks between the parties, the council sought to achieve what the mayor had not been able to accomplish after years of proposed runway extension plans. At one time, RIAC suggested parallel runways of 10,000 feet – almost 3,000 feet longer than the existing runway. That suggestion was scaled back to a northerly extension of Runway 5-23 to 9,250 feet, which Dillon amended to a southerly extension to 8,700 feet. Avedisian argued 8,300 feet was sufficient to meet RIAC’s objective to offer non-stop coast-to-coast service.
The subcommittee asked for 8,300 feet, but to have done that, Dillon said last week, would have required another round of environmental studies delaying the projects at least two years.
Reportedly, the memorandum says the city and RIAC will work to rezone residential property it has amassed through its voluntary home acquisition program for commercial uses. This could be a bone of contention, especially if it affects residential neighbors.
According to sources, the memorandum does not include anything about compensation for lost tax revenues. That, however, may not be that critical as, under amendments to the State Airport System Plan gained by the administration, the State Planning Council recommends communities hosting airports be adequately compensated.
Under the agreement, when realigning Main Avenue to account for the longer runway, RIAC is not to seek any waivers from Department of Transportation standards on design. It is also to provide about $7,200 in funding to URI for the monitoring of water quality in Buckeye Brook.
The memorandum makes no mention of air quality testing at Wickes and St. Rose of Lima Schools that the administration made a part of its MOU. Also, there is no mention of council consideration of Buckeye Brook wetlands. The council will need to approve wetland permits for RIAC to complete the extended safety areas to the shorter runway.