Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson has docketed a resolution that, if approved by her colleagues next Monday, could result in a year and a half to three-year delay to lengthening Green Airport’s main runway to 8,700 feet and safety improvements to the shorter runway.
The resolution calls on the City Council to appeal the record of decision issued by the Federal Aviation Administration and retain the Taber Law Group of Irvine, CA to file and process the appeal. Further, it allocates up to $65,400, which is earmarked in the current budget, for airport litigation and designates Council President Bruce Place to approve and enter into a retainer agreement with Taber.
Steven M. Taber, owner and founder of the firm, said yesterday he has been in contact with representatives from the Council and that, if a petition for a review of the decision is to take place, it must be filed by Nov. 22.
Taber said filing for a petition does not by itself stop the Rhode Island Airport Corporation from proceeding with the projects.
That’s not the way Rhode Island Airport Corporation President and CEO Kevin Dillon sees it.
Dillon said yesterday he is disappointed the Council is considering an appeal and that the action would throw a level of uncertainty on residents and businesses seeking a resolution to airport expansion. He also said, because of legal action, the FAA wouldn’t issue grants for the projects, meaning the work couldn’t start, putting everything “in suspension.”
Taber said the appeal usually involves a “finite kind of pleading,” where the FAA is being challenged on particular aspects of the record of decision.
He said the city would file briefs representing its argument and then the FAA would respond. This would lead up to an oral argument before a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals. RIAC could file its own briefs as part of the process should they choose, he said.
“There is no trial, no dispositions,” he said.
However, the process is not very expeditious. The exchange of briefs, oral arguments and eventual decision could take from 18 months to three years. Further, when asked if the city could target its appeal to certain projects – the lengthening of Runway 5-23 – Taber said the petition for a review applies to the entire record of decision.
This means the safety improvements to the shorter runway, which RIAC has made a priority to comply with FAA standards, can’t be distilled from the process, although council members say they do favor those improvements.
Asked if a petition for review provides the city with “leverage” to gain promises from RIAC, Taber pointed out that the appeal is directed at the FAA, not RIAC. Nonetheless, he said, the petition could be used “to ensure a memorandum of understanding has some teeth.”
The city administration and RIAC sought to go the route of a memorandum of understanding during the process, where the FAA examined the environmental impacts of alternative airport projects including a no build proposal. The agreement presented by Dillon would have committed the agency to relocate the Winslow Park playing fields in addition to addressing a range of other issues raised by the city. Rather than countering the agreement as proposed, the Council rejected it outright.
Soon after the FAA rendered its decision favoring the 8,700-foot runway, that will require an extension to the south and looping of Main Avenue, the city administration met with the Council in executive session to review its options. Based on an item-by-item analysis of the environmental statement, City Planner William DePasquale concluded that the FAA had thoroughly followed the process as defined by law. He did not come up with any glaring omissions he felt could be the basis of an appeal.
Dillon was confident yesterday that the FAA would prevail if an appeal were pursued. He also questioned, given the tumult raised over car taxes, why the Council would spend the money.
“I didn’t think the city was in the position of discretionary money,” he said. After a pause, he added that the Council, in denying a rezoning to allow corporate hangars, “walked away from $160,000 last year.”
Regardless, Council members Joseph Solomon and Steve Merolla have been critical of Mayor Scott Avedisian for not taking a lead and initiating legal action. Solomon contends the money spent on an appeal is not material if it means improved living conditions for Warwick residents. Merolla argues the money has been put aside for an appeal. Further, he contends RIAC has a history of not following mandates on air and water quality nor has it followed through with residential soundproofing and home purchases as they said they would. RIAC has challenged much of what he has said.
Merolla said he would hope the action would have RIAC “put the money aside to do what you say you’re going to do. All I’m asking is for them to follow the law,” he said. He called the record of decision “fundamentally unfair to the public.”
Taber did not estimate what litigation could cost taxpayers.
“My rates depend on who the client is and what the client can afford,” he said. He said his rates are on a sliding scale, but that they would be less than $300 an hour.
In a statement on his website Taber says, “With hourly rates at large law firms significantly over the $300 per hour mark, it has become increasingly difficult or impossible for clients to obtain cost-efficient legal representation. At the same time, environmental liability, and risks and liability associated with running an airport have increased exponentially. On July 1, 2010, Steven M. Taber founded Taber Law Group to provide cost-efficient, top-quality service to environmental, aviation and airport clients.”
The website says Taber has practiced environmental, aviation and airport development law for more than 23 years, including at a large law firm, at the Federal Aviation Administration, and at the Illinois Attorney General’s office.
In her resolution, Vella-Wilkinson bases the appeal on the grounds that the health, safety and welfare of Warwick citizens are paramount and that the airport improvements, as proposed, “will adversely impact many residents.”
It goes on to say that there is little time to take an appeal and based on the work of a legal selection committee that the city retains Taber. The committee mentioned in the resolution convened about five years ago and, in the opinion of Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo, who served on it, no longer exists.
A citizen member of the committee, Michael Zarum, confirmed this week that he had talked with attorneys within the last week but he was doing that neither as a representative of the Council nor the city administration.
As the resolution reads, Taber would be selected to represent the city, even though there was no request for proposals [RFP] as customary for consulting and legal services.
As of yesterday’s deadline, Vella-Wilkinson did not return a call and Avedisian did not respond to an email for this story.