After three days of extensive negotiations, members of the City Council and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) have a conceptual agreement to end the council’s appeal of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval for a runway extension.
The next step will be for attorneys from the two sides to finalize a document to come before the full council for a vote, which could be as soon as this Wednesday. The agreement will also need approval of the RIAC board and the FAA.
The council was slated to get an overview of the agreement last night from their counsel, John Harrington, who participated in the talks as a non-voting member of the committee. Also taking part in the talks as a non-voting member of the committee was City Planner William DePasquale, who has followed RIAC’s various plans to expand Green Airport for more than a decade.
“This will be a briefing,” committee chair Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Ward 3) said of Harrington’s presentation. She said it would be held behind closed doors and the council members would not be asked for their input.
In September, the FAA approved a series of airport projects that included extending the main runway about 1,500 feet to 8,700 feet and improved safety areas at both ends of the shorter runway.
But while the terms of agreement won’t be released until the parties finalize the document, there was optimism the appeal will be dropped and about what Warwick stands to gain.
“I feel very positive about it. Everyone worked very hard,” said Vella-Wilkinson.
“I was informed that an agreement would be put to paper yesterday but have not received anything yet,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said in an email Monday. “It is my understanding that the council's agreement would replace the contents of the agreement that we had reached with RIAC. Until I see what is included, it is difficult to comment.”
It was not clear yesterday whether the mayor would be asked to approve the agreement or whether he would have the authority to reject or amend it.
Committee member Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) feels the agreement reaches beyond what the city would have gotten had the council approved a memorandum of agreement the city administration and RIAC reached in 2010. Also, he points out, there are provisions that the city could not have gotten had it pursued its appeal.
“To get something different that it couldn’t have gotten through the court is appealing,” he said.
Merolla said the process was void of politics with the parties sticking to the issues.
“I truly felt politics was not involved and we were all on the same page,” he said. “I do think, in the end, the product is better than what we had before, or if we went [pursued] to appeal.”
Vella-Wilkinson took a bigger view. She said the work of Mayor Scott Avedisian “laid the foundation” for an agreement and DePasquale, with his institutional knowledge and familiarity with the process, were critical to the outcome. She said there were many others who came forward to offer their input and that she intends to name them once the document becomes public.
“We had a lot of assistance. This truly has Warwick stamped all over it,” she said.
The committee also depended heavily on Steve Taber, the California aviation attorney who filed the appeal in the Washington federal courts and was present for the three-day marathon session.
Taber’s knowledge of FAA regulations and policies was valuable throughout the talks, said Merolla. Representing RIAC were attorneys Peter Frazier and K. Joseph Shekarchi, who RIAC retained after the council voted to appeal, and RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon.
Merolla said some of the talks became a matter of the sides understanding what they could and could not do. As an example, Merolla said the council couldn’t promise zone changes for airport property because that requires a process involving a public hearing and a council vote. There was speculation the council had asked for a shorter runway extension, but Dillon said last week that such a dramatic revision would have required another extensive environmental study, delaying the projects another couple of years.
Merolla, who over the years has been critical of the time it has taken RIAC to follow through on promises such as the acquisition of homes in high noise contours, said he expects the document will include enforcement provisions and timetables.
“Conceptually we can agree,” he said, “then we have to get the language.”
Vella-Wilkinson is optimistic that can be accomplished by Thursday and that council consideration that would involve public input could happen shortly thereafter.