Does the city stand to gain by challenging Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of a runway extension and other projects at Green Airport; or working with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) to address concerns?
In simple terms, that’s the question Mayor Scott Avedisian has asked the City Council to address.
In a letter to City Council President Bruce Place dated Sept. 26, Avedisian says appealing the FAA record of decision “is a serious matter to me and, in considering whether to initiate an appeal, I must weight the nature and type of external impacts associated with the Airport project on the community against the cost to the taxpayer to bear this legal challenge.”
Legal action, the mayor estimates, could cost taxpayers in the six figures.
Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, whose Ward 3 covers most of the airport, said yesterday she has been researching the cost of an appeal and she believes it could be done with 400 to 500 hours of billable legal time. At a cost of $400 an hour, that would total $160,000 to $180,000.
She also suggested there could be an action – “a petition for review” – that would be a step short of an appeal. Vella-Wilkinson apparently doesn’t see the city as halting the lengthening of Runway 5-23 to 8,700 feet, the most controversial of the projects, but ensuring residents and the environment are protected.
“It’s not so much about the runway,” she said, “but ensuring the mitigation is carried out.”
In a statement later emailed to the Beacon, Vella-Wilkinson said, “I don’t believe that we should throw our hands in the air and say ‘nothing more is to be done.’ Our residents and businesses are in the line of fire due to this expansion and they deserve better than that. We must take a more active role in protecting constituent’s rights, health and property. Many have said there is little the city can do, that challenges don't work, and that simply is not the truth. We must challenge the FAA decisions just as the Naples, FL noise case, Cleveland-Hopkins airport, Hillsboro, Oregon and more. All are examples that more can be done to help the city and its constituents.”
Avedisian, who was out of town yesterday, was not available for comment. The Beacon was also unable to reach Place.
But the mayor’s chief of staff Mark Carruolo, who has followed more than a decade of proposals to expand the airport, feels the city has been successful in gaining a number of concessions, although he still would have preferred the shorter 8,300-foot runway suggested by the mayor.
From a realist’s viewpoint, he says, “Knowing the state of the economy, we should take advantage of development at the airport when they do it properly.”
The city holds at least two cards when it comes to airport improvements: RIAC will need council approval for a wetlands permit to extend the safety area of the shorter of the runways, and rezoning, if it goes ahead with the proposed corporate hangars on the south west side of the field.
Carruolo believes RIAC could argue it doesn’t need council approval of the wetlands alteration and that, if it were to include the hangars as part of the state airport plan, it could avoid the rezoning.
“The decision,” he said, “is whether to continue to be on the offensive, or do we want to look at where we started and what’s been accomplished and how we can work on accomplishing more.”
On reflection, he added, “While we didn’t get everything we want, we accomplished quite a lot.”
Carruolo says the danger of a court action is that it is a “yes or no” outcome.
“The question is whether you build it or you don’t build it,” he said.
RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon said he is “disappointed” the council may consider legal action that could delay projects and leave airport neighbors “in limbo” that much longer.
“I urge them [the council] to sit down with us and put the legitimate issues on the table and try to deal with them,” he said. Later in the conversation he reiterated the invitation, adding, “maybe there are things we can do to make it acceptable.”
Dillon said he is somewhat at a loss as to where the council stands. He said council members offer diverse opinions and the group, as a whole, lacks focus.
In her statement, Vella-Wilkinson made the connection between the cost of litigation versus what she called “mounting a challenge to force compliance in the areas of mitigation such as environmental impact to our wetlands, noise, tax revenue loss and the potential adverse impact on the businesses in Airport Plaza.”
“I’m very disappointed with the FAA decision. Airport Road and Main Avenue are primary thoroughfares that accommodate intense traffic that will now be routed through quiet residential neighborhoods. The majority of the calls I receive from my constituents currently deal with public safety and traffic issues. I can only imagine how the volume of those calls will expand as the runways do,” she said.
The councilwoman also called on federal and state legislators to advocate for the city.
“Steps must be taken to ensure full mitigation of the issues are funded and completed,” she said.
Dillon said he was unfamiliar with a petition for review as mentioned by Vella-Wilkinson.
In his letter, Avedisian reminds Place the city is up against a deadline to take action and a timely response is necessary.
“If the appeal of the ROD is not pursued,” he writes, “the City will have other opportunities to review certain aspects of the Airport Project, such as any formal freshwater wetlands alteration or certain roadway improvement projects as they proceed under different statutory and regulator review processes.”