It was a game of political ping-pong Monday night that finally came to a close when the City Council voted to appeal Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of several Green Airport projects, including lengthening the main runway to 8,700 feet.
But if the council debate seemed long, an appeal promises to be far longer. It could delay the airport projects by as much as three years, although even those who initiated the action say they aren’t opposed to the airport and believe the projects won’t be stopped.
Rather, they say the health and safety of residents is paramount and, as elected leaders, they have a responsibility to challenge the FAA.
There was some question yesterday whether the appeal would progress, as the man named by the City Council to act on their behalf could not be reached.
“He’s conveniently been avoiding me. I’ve had no communications, no discussions, despite my reaching out to him,” City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said yesterday. The Taber Law Group based in California and Steven Taber could not be reached by the Beacon either. A voice message left with Taber was not returned.
Ruggiero said an appeal “is not a complex pleading,” but that it must be filed in a timely manner and the proper court. The city has 60 days from the publication of the FAA decision to file an appeal, which Ruggiero believes is within the next two weeks.
“That’s up to him to know,” Ruggiero said of Taber. Ruggiero said an appeal would probably have to be filed in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Rhode Island Airport Corporation President Kevin Dillon expressed his disappointment that the council is pursuing an appeal. As a result, the RIAC board postponed action yesterday that would have started the bonding process for the projects as well as appraisals of homes and businesses that would have to be acquired.
Explaining that the council had the opportunity to state what it was looking for when he proposed a memorandum of agreement a year ago, Dillon said, “I’m at a loss to understand what they are really looking for.”
Dillon said he has not received a single call from the council since it rejected the agreement.
Some council members were intent on pinning an appeal on Mayor Scott Avedisian Monday night. Avedisian has made it clear he believes an appeal would be futile. Nonetheless, his chief of staff, Mark Carruolo, stated at the beginning of the discussion that the administration would not stand in the way of council action.
“We’re here to represent the people of the city of Warwick and the FAA has not taken our concerns into consideration,” Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said Monday night. “For goodness sake, even our dead cannot rest in peace [several historic cemeteries may be impacted by the projects]. This airport is going out of control and we must challenge it or else how can we look our constituents in the eye? Do you want to say there is a price on the quality of life? This is not about anti-airport. This is about being pro-Warwick. The FAA insists it’s pro-state, but they don’t have to deal with it – we do.”
Vella-Wilkinson sponsored a resolution last week calling on the council to appeal the FAA decision rendered on Sept. 23.
The 60-day appeal deadline has put pressure on the council to act or lose the chance to contest airport plans and conclusions reached after an exhaustive environmental impact statement that has cost more than $10 million and, in its most recent form, three years to complete.
At close to 11 p.m. with a vote of 8-0 [Council President Bruce Place was not in attendance], the council asked Ruggiero to contact Taber and negotiate a contract not to exceed $200 an hour for a total of $65,400. Taber, who has practiced aviation law for about 24 years, would come under the solicitor’s department and be assigned to work with the council.
Michael Zarum, who has closely followed airport proposals for years and served on a legal selection committee named by the mayor about five years ago, contacted Taber within the last two weeks. He provided Vella-Wilkinson information on Taber, which she incorporated into her resolution.
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon said health factors are his main worry and stressed the danger of particulate matter from jet engine exhaust on those who live, work and play near the airport.
“If this can be completed without having an impact on the health, safety and well-being of the people around the airport, I’ll be the first person to put a shovel in the ground at the groundbreaking ceremony to expand it,” he said. “I don’t care how much money the airport makes for the city of Warwick; if it’s killing people, I’m not going to favor expanding it.”
He compared the expansion to the landfill in Johnston, saying the residents of the town don’t know if the odors emitted affect their health and he doesn’t want Warwick dealing with a similar issue any more than they already are.
“Yes, they are getting compensated, but what’s money if you don’t have your health?” Solomon said.
Solomon proposed an amendment to Vella-Wilkinson’s resolution in an effort to have the administration responsible for the action “so no one can criticize how the services were obtained.”
What guarantees would there be that the administration would follow through?
“If solicitor Ruggiero and Mayor Avedisian chose not to go that route, then they would have to answer to the taxpayers,” he said.
As the evening played out, the proposal to have Ruggiero retain Taber and then have him report to the council was eventually worked out through a series of amendments but not before resident Michelle Komar told the council to make up its mind.
Stop playing “ping-pong ball games with the mayor and take charge of the situation,” she said.
Councilwoman Donna Travis, acting council president, suspended council rules, opening the floor to public comment. About 15 residents, many of whom have followed airport developments for years, led anti-airport groups and served on a RIAC study resource committee, spoke, as well as former councilwoman Helen Taylor and Rob Cote, who spearheaded the Car Tax Revolt during the summer.
Taylor, who was a member of the mayor’s Cancer Council, which is now disbanded, said that she discovered that of the 39 cities and towns in the state, Warwick had 50 percent more incidents of lung cancer.
“That, to me, proves what is going on,” she said.
Cote, who grew up in Warwick and has lived near Runway 5 for the past six years, also worries about carcinogens from jet emissions. He said he has to power wash his house twice a year and his boat once a month, as black film often coats both.
“It’s bothersome,” he said. “My kids used to play soccer at Winslow Field [which is located near the airport] and they stopped that because I was concerned.”
Other constituents, including Janice Pangman, Raleigh Jenkins as well as Gail Gardiner, also spoke. Like Taylor and Cote, they encouraged the council to approve the resolution.
Pangman, a citizen of Ward 3, said, “It’s not healthy and it’s not safe,” while Jenkins, who served as a member of the now disbanded RIAC Studies Resource Committee, said he is unimpressed with the FAA. He recalled a RIAC board meeting at which a 150-page document asked the FAA to examine their concerns to no avail.
“One of the biggest insults is that they no longer listen to what we have to say,” he said. “Not one person opened the book and they wanted to move forward.”
At the outset of the airport discussion, Carruolo spoke on behalf of the mayor, reading a letter addressed to the council.
“It is now three months after the initial executive session and approximately 18 days before the deadline for filing an appeal and the City Council is only now considering legal counsel. My immediate concern is that the designated legal counsel appears to have been chosen without any due diligence performed by the City Council,” the mayor wrote.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla questioned why Avedisian was not present. He said he found it “convenient” the mayor submitted a letter as opposed to making an appearance.
“This is completely disingenuous,” said Merolla.
Carruolo argued that Avedisian was still willing to make funds available for the council to pursue a lawsuit. Yet, Solomon agreed with Merolla and said, “I would have liked to have seen him here before us.”
Merolla said he received many calls in regard to the expansion and feels that if the airport is expanded once; there is a chance it will be done again.
Additionally, he has sympathy for homeowners and business owners in the airport vicinity because they haven’t known the fate of their properties for more than 12 years. He also finds it interesting that the FAA neglects to discuss the health hazards at meetings.
“Their lives have been put on hold,” he said. “What I find incredible is I hardly heard about the environmental impacts at all. What I have heard is that this is an economic engine. When they say that we are not in favor of economic growth, do I need to remind them what we have pushed for? We need to stand up for ourselves.”
Carruolo, who served as city planner prior to his role as chief of staff, questioned Tuesday whether an appeal will be able to address many of the concerns raised by council members. As an example, he cited Solomon’s concern about particulate matter.
Carruolo didn’t discredit Solomon’s concerns, but he said the guidelines for the environmental study don’t cover particulate matter. His point is that the petition for review looks for flaws in the process.
“The fact of the matter is that they followed the process and where they were wrong, they corrected it,” he said.