Appeal of longer runway ‘up in the air’
With time running out, neither the City Council nor the administration have decided whether to appeal the Federal Aviation Administration decision enabling the lengthening of Green Airport’s main runway and extending the safety areas to the shorter crosswind runway.
Rendered on Sept. 23, the city has 60 days to act or to allow the decision to stand uncontested. Kevin Dillon, CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, is anxious to get started with the projects and the agency has already retained a firm to augment its personnel in their design and execution. Dillon likewise says he has extended an “olive branch” and is prepared to work with the mayor and council on issues of concern.
Members of the council argue that the city could gain more if it appealed the decision, although, as of last week, it had not approved, or for that matter, introduced a resolution to take such action.
Rather, some council members are critical of the administration, saying Mayor Scott Avedisian should take the lead.
On the other hand, Avedisian has sought direction from the council. In an executive session with the council more than a month ago, City Planner William DePasquale, City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero and Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo outlined possible avenues of appeal. They also gave an assessment of the likelihood of gains through the process.
Last week, the mayor pushed the matter back to the council in response to Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla, an attorney who called on Avedisian to lead, not follow.
“Either you want to be the mayor and lead, or follow, or in this case hide. It’s up to him to bring an attorney before us,” Merolla said.
Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon said yesterday, “The council has clearly, clearly made intentions known. I think the mayor is trying to point his finger at someone else for his lack of action. The fact that the mayor is not acting until a resolution is ridiculous…we clearly conveyed our intent.”
It’s not that clear in the mayor’s opinion.
“Without revealing the details of the discussion because that information is privileged, the only thing that I will say is that the staff did request that the City Council provide a unified position in the form of a resolution so that there is clear direction coming from the council. The concern is that whatever direction the administration takes it would be open to criticism from individual council members without having a clear direction from the full City Council,” Avedisian said in a statement.
Merolla contends Avedisian doesn’t want to appear to be an obstructionist to the airport, which is a generator of jobs and a boost to the state economy if he has ambitions of running for higher office.
“He doesn’t want to be seen as anti-airport. He has to walk a tightrope,” Merolla said.
On the other hand, a credible appeal, which has no guarantee of being upheld by the courts, would further delay a resolution to airport expansion, leaving homeowners in the path of a longer runway that much longer in limbo while incurring taxpayer expense. Both issues weigh on council members who, in the last two months, have faced the drumbeat of the car tax revolt, an effort to reopen the budget, cut costs and restore the $5,500 motor vehicle value exemption.
Based on her research, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson estimated recently that an appeal would entail about 400 legal hours. Depending on the hourly rate negotiated by the city, an appeal could cost upwards of $150,000.
That’s an amount the city has consistently budgeted for several years to retain outside counsel or consultants on the airport. Although a committee named by the mayor went as far as interviewing attorneys specializing in airport issues and offered recommendations, the administration took no action. As it is not spent, the money regularly becomes part of the surplus at the end of the fiscal year.
In this year’s budget, $65,024 is allocated to airport litigation.
Merolla says if the administration had used the funds, it could have been building a case and could demand more of the airport corporation. At this point, Merolla says the city needs to “rattle the sabers” and if it doesn’t take an appeal it is without leverage to gain concessions.
“You don’t give up everything in hopes of getting things,” he said.
“Contrary to the Councilman Merolla’s opinion, I believe that the administration has been leading on this issue since the beginning,” Avedisian responded. “The City has worked strenuously in revealing and objecting to the flaws within the environmental impact statement.”
Specifically, the mayor observes that various runway extension plans have included proposals for the tunneling of Main Avenue, runways of lengths up to 10,500 feet and the extension of Route 37 to Warwick Avenue that would dramatically impact Governor Francis Farms.
“Now the plan is for an 8,700 foot extension to the south with a realignment of Main Avenue. The city also worked with Apponaug Girls Softball and Warwick Firefighters Soccer to develop a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that included numerous concessions to the city while at the same time would have preserved the city’s right to take legal action against items that were not included in the agreement; the City Council chose to reject that agreement,” Avedisian said.
Pressed for whether the council would introduce a resolution, Solomon reiterated what he believes is the consensus of the council adding, “we’ve done resolutions in the past and he doesn’t follow resolutions.”
Solomon said, “If the mayor wants to play dead on this issue that’s what he’s going to. It’s up to him to explain. He’s going to have to answer to the people.”
Asked what he thinks could be achieved by an appeal, Solomon said he knows the airport is an “economic locomotive,” but that “we have to do all we can do to preserve the health and safety of the people who live around the airport.”