Members of the City Council said yesterday that this is the time to open talks with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) and see if an agreement can be reached before the council’s appeal is heard in the federal court.
“Let’s all sit down and use the next couple of months and do the best we can to address the problems,” Ward 7 Councilman Charles Donovan Jr. said. “Just to say no for the sake of saying no doesn’t help anyone.”
Donovan said he talked with California aviation attorney Steve Taber, who the council voted to retain, and that Taber told him it would be at least two months before arguments are heard on the city’s petition for a review of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision approving an extension to Green Airport’s longer runway and safety area improvements to the shorter one. Donovan said Taber advised him that the council should use the time to see if it can come to an agreement.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla is also of the opinion that an agreement, rather than a court battle, would be to the benefit of the city and the council. His question is who is going to take the lead. Should he be the one to do it, the mayor, or should they do it jointly?
“I’m one council member and I’m suddenly getting appointed,” he said.
“I just want to get the problem solved,” he added.
What Merolla says he wants is a timetable that would define what actions are going to be taken and when, so as to end the uncertainty faced by residents and businesses whose property would be taken. He also wants to see a timetable for the completion of a system for the collection of de-icing fluids, relocation of the Winslow Park ball fields and a commitment for continued air quality monitoring.
“I’ll go over and meet with him,” Merolla said of RIAC President and CEO Kevin Dillon. “I would rather go with Scott [Avedisian] and Peter [Ruggiero]. I don’t want to be in the middle of this.”
“Personally, I’m in favor of a runway extension for safety reasons,” he said.
Merolla doesn’t believe the stated purpose of extending the runway from 7,166 to 8,700 so as to provide non-stop service to the West Coast is reason for the project, but safety is.
“This is a problem. This is a business issue; let’s sit down and solve it like a business issue,” he said.
Dillon confirmed yesterday that he has talked with some members of the council. He said he welcomes sitting down with council members and working on an agreement. He said RIAC initiated the talks.
“Councilman Merolla has been the most outspoken on this,” Dillon said.
And in response to issues raised by Merolla, Dillon said he is prepared to address issues such as the timing of acquisitions and the treatment of de-icing fluids.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who introduced the resolution to appeal the FAA ruling, likewise favors an agreement to prolonged legal action, provided it addresses city concerns.
“I feel very positively that Kevin Dillon is reaching out to the council. It’s a great move. We’re not against airport growth. It’s a great idea for both parties to create an enforceable community benefits agreement that is a win-win situation for all parties,” she said.
City Council President Bruce Place said he hasn’t been contacted by RIAC in the last week, but “I have no problems sitting down with anyone, provided there are no violations of open meeting laws.”
He said the council’s action, although he was not present for the vote, was an expression of the frustration felt by council members and the public that RIAC has disregarded concerns over air and water pollution.
“No one in the council is anti-airport development,” Place said in response to a Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce letter calling on the council to drop its appeal.
As for going forward with the suit, Place said $65,000 has been appropriated and that he is prepared to advocate for more money – “another $200,000” – in next year’s budget.
Dillon is somewhat mystified as the council rejected a memorandum of agreement that he and the city administration worked out in 2010, prior to the record of decision that was rendered this September. At an October 2010 council meeting, Dillon said more than once that the proposed agreement was a starting point and that if council members had issues they could sit down and go over them.
He said the de-icing collection system could be made a part of the agreement but was not included at the time because it is part of a permit agreement with the Department of Environmental Management. He said under the terms of the permit, RIAC would discontinue its practice of vacuuming the de-icing fluid that is glycol and it would flow into a system that would hold the runoff and process it before it is disposed of in the Warwick sewer system. Under the permit, RIAC is to have 30 percent of the system designed by next week and fully designed by the end of next year. Construction is to take place in 2014 and it is to be fully operational by 2015.
He said, “The trick is to build a system big enough” to handle the storage of the runoff until it can be processed. Also an issue is the financing of the $25 million project.
“We’re not going to get a FAA grant. It is so low on their priorities,” he said.
Dillon said RIAC would have to fully underwrite the cost of the system unless it was able to gain grants from sources other than the FAA.
As for who should be negotiating at this point, Donovan said regardless of who is at the table he wants to have City Planner William DePasquale there because of his extensive knowledge about the airport. He urged that the next two months be put to good use.
“It is more critical now, more than ever, so we aren’t stuck in limbo,” he said.
Mayor Scott Avedisian could not be reached for comment.
His chief of staff Mark Carruolo said, “the mayor negotiated a draft agreement and the council rejected it. Shouldn’t it be up to them to do it?”
A letter from the mayor appears on page 9.
With reports from Jessica Botelho