Council mulls airport resolution


The Warwick City Council airport litigation committee met again yesterday, only this time they met in the Planning Department conference room and there were plenty of empty seats.

That wasn’t the situation about two weeks ago when more than 150 union members, along with representatives from the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, packed the Council Chambers urging them to drop the appeal of Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval of a longer runway. The groups said litigation could delay the project and the creation of jobs important to the state economy.

But if the committee is any closer to reaching an agreement with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), it wasn’t apparent yesterday.

Committee member Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) said the goal to reach an agreement remains consistent, although because of the committee’s limited powers, “It’s like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

Merolla said the committee has held three meetings with RIAC, counting the one last week when Steve Taber met with RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon. Taber is a California attorney specializing in aviation law who was retained by the council to appeal the FAA’s record of decision approving the extension of the main runway to 8,700 feet, increased safety areas to the shorter cross-wind runway and a series of other airport projects.

“We’re moving toward a resolution and what it contains,” Merolla said. He added that the council and its lawyer now have the administrative record and are in the process of reviewing the lengthy document.

That observation brought a nod of approval from City Council President Bruce Place, also a committee member. He said the administrative record is voluminous, comprising six gigabytes of information.

As it has done before, the committee opened with public comment before going into executive session.

And, as in previous sessions, residents Michael Zarum and Richard Langseth offered their opinions and advice.

Armed with copies of a letter he is sending to Dillon, Langseth said he was denied his request for financial quarterly reports through December 2011.

Langseth argued this is important because in his opinion RIAC faces financial issues that would make it difficult to finance the proposed projects.

“The whole of it is financial,” he said, “if they can’t float a bond, they’re in deep trouble.”

“Let’s get these documents out,” he said.

Zarum said RIAC has made helping the construction trades “a main mission” that promises to overburden the airport with debt and push costs to the point where airport costs force airlines to operate from other airports.

“This is going to be an economic disaster if they continue to overbuild,” he said.

Zarum argued an 8,300-foot runway is sufficient and that a reduction in the proposed extension would reduce the cost and the impact on Warwick residents.

Whether the committee would seek to have RIAC amend the approved 8,700-foot runway is not clear. In voting to litigate, council members stressed their concern for the health and safety of residents and assurance that RIAC be held to a timetable for the projects, particularly mitigation efforts and the purchase of targeted homes and businesses.

Many of the issues raised by the council were addressed in a memorandum of agreement reached by the city administration and RIAC about two years ago, but the council rejected the memorandum.

Apart from questions over the timing of projects, and checks on air and water quality, the relocation of the Winslow Park playing fields and how now vacant airport property would be developed appear to be major issues.

Dillon has urged a speedy resolution in order to complete design of the projects, apply for funding and advertise for bids.

Arguments that the airport contributes significantly to the state’s economy have come under fire on the council.

“When you hear people from outside of the city say that the airport is an economic engine, I look at Ward 3 and take a drive from Route 37 to the Greenwood Bridge and see all the empty storefronts. How many of the businesses that are there are actually depending on the airport? I’ve cold-called businesses and pass along information. If the airport was such an economic engine, Post Road would be booming,” said Committee Chair Camille Vella-Wilkinson, (D-Ward 3).

“Everyone is duped into thinking this is going to be a huge economic benefit,” said Merolla.

He said another meeting with RIAC is being planned for next week.

With reports from Jessica Botelho


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