City Mulls Runway Challenge

Council Ponders Legal Action Pending Expected Approval of Airport Projects

Warwick Beacon Online
August 18, 2011 By John Howell

After more than a decade of scrutinizing and challenging assumptions that Green Airport needs a longer runway, the City of Warwick is at a crossroads.

Does the city take legal action in response to an anticipated favorable record of decision to lengthen Runway 5-23 from 7,166 to 8,700 feet? Or does it let it go uncontested?

The pros and cons were discussed in an executive session of the City Council that lasted more than an hour Monday night.

City Planner William DePasquale, who has extensively researched proposals and shaped the city’s response to airport plans, provided council members with a grid listing the city objections and responses from state agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration. He also gave an assessment of potential failures of the final environmental impact statement drafted by the FAA and gives the council areas where a decision might be challenged by the city and, possibly, outside legal counsel that may seek to challenge the statement.

There’s support for a legal challenge, although some council members argue it is late and they are not necessarily committed to spending hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, it could cost.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday that he would meet with Solicitor Peter Ruggiero about a course of action. His chief of staff, Mark Carruolo, who attended the executive session, has not heard what the council would like to happen.

“We would like a formal response back from you [the council] and what you want to do. There needs to be clearer direction from the council on what they would like to see,” he said.

From speaking to members of the council there appears to be some consensus that the city should contest a decision from the FAA, but not on what they would gain from the action.

“We all know and recognize that the airport is an economic engine for the state and that it also affects the quality of life for residents,” said Steve Merolla, D-Ward 9.

Merolla said the airport hasn’t been held to requirements and that he would look for deadlines and guarantees from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. As an example, he said that RIAC has been operating without a valid permit for the discharge of runoff water since 1987.

“That’s a simple issue that I’d like to see resolved,” he said. Also, he says, RIAC hasn’t acquired all the homes it said it would, leaving homeowners in a state of limbo.

“All I’m saying, from an equitable standpoint, you have to do what you have to do. It’s not good enough to do it whenever you want to.”

Merolla favors retention of outside legal counsel although, he contends, it may be too late.

“When you haven’t hired any experts, no legal opinion, how do you assess the viability of your claim?”

Likewise, Merolla asks whether a federal court, where the city would need to take its appeal, would give much weight to Warwick’s argument if not supported by recognized experts. As for DePasquale’s work, Merolla says, “I don’t think he has the experience with what’s been raised nationally.”

“There’s no expert testimony,” Merolla said of the city’s arguments to date, “Now that the horse has left the barn, it’s out the door.”

Merolla said consecutive budgets have set aside funds to hire counsel and experts and, with the exception of one year when about $12,000 was spent, it has gone untouched.

“We’re negotiating from a position of weakness, we just keep writing letters…we’re not even rattling the sabers,” he said.

A total of $65,024 is allocated for airport litigation, an amount that isn’t expected to take the city very far.

Nonetheless, DePasquale believes the city is well positioned to bring legal action – although all that may do is delay things.

“All the potential issues of litigation have been forwarded to the FAA and are on record,” he said. His point is that the FAA can’t now argue that the city should have raised those issues during the process.

“We have preserved our rights to contest it,” he said.

Of the latest proposal to expand the airport, DePasquale said, “It has been seven years and $12 million on the RIAC side and we’ve done everything in house. In essence we’ve saved all our ammo until the end.”

The city’s arguments, as defined by DePasquale, focus on inadequate mitigation of adverse impacts and full disclosure of impacts. Specifically, he cites potential health impacts on John Wickes School students playing outdoors and loss of affordable housing.

City Council President Bruce Place thinks highly of DePasquale and the work he’s done.

“He just knows his stuff,” he said.

Yet Place favors challenging the decision if it comes to that.

“I don’t think we should roll over and die,” he said. “The city needs to provide legal action on those things we object to.”

Place would like to see the extension shortened, even though the mayor has advocated that position for years and neither RIAC or the FAA have considered his proposal for a runway of 8,300 feet.

About a year ago, the council rejected a memorandum of agreement that would have guaranteed certain benefits, such as relocating the Winslow Park play fields, in exchange for an agreement not to contest.

Like Merolla, Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon argues the city should have turned to outside advice earlier. He said his concern is the health and safety of the public. As to how much the city should spend, he rhetorically asks, “How much is health and safety worth; how much is a life worth?”

“Win, lose or draw,” he says, “we go down fighting. I can’t lie down on this issue.”

In addition to a longer runway, the record of decision will apply to runway safety areas on Runway 16-34. Extension of those safety areas, estimated at $77 million, would require the relocation of the Post and Airport Road intersection to the north and the alternation of about seven acres of Buckeye Brook wetlands.

The safety improvements are a priority and would be the first of the two major projects to be undertaken. Even if unsuccessful, legally challenging the record of decision could delay the safety improvements as well as a longer runway.