Council to Hear Plea to Drop Airport Appeal Monday

Warwick Beacon Online
Dececmber 15, 2011 By John Howell

Shekarchi and Place THE FULL SCOOP: Attorney K. Joseph Shekarchi, left, talks with City Council President Bruce Place before the start of Monday’s council meeting.

They did everything by the book Monday night, meaning those who want the City Council to reconsider its vote for a court to review the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision granting a longer runway at Green Airport will be back at City Hall next Monday.

It also means that the council postponed action to establish a committee to follow the litigation and talk with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation about a possible agreement. And it set the stage for critics of airport expansion to restate their arguments.

It was the council’s rules (and those of the state) that put a lock on the show Monday night. This coming Monday promises to have a full agenda about the airport and the three public hearings on the master plan for the station district.

On Monday, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council came prepared to argue that the council’s FAA challenge would only delay the inevitable construction of a longer runway and other airport improvements and only hurt the economy and jobs when they are most needed. A delegation of business, contracting and union leaders was ready to make their case and, according to reports, many more were prepared to fill council chambers with their supporters.

But the docket did not include a reconsideration vote to appeal the FAA decision and hire an attorney for the action, nor did Council President Bruce Place see a way to open the meeting for public comment on the airport. Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson’s effort to create a committee, which was docketed Friday, would have afforded that opportunity.

But it wasn’t to be.

Under the state Opening Meetings Law, the council agenda was to have been posted in two public locations as well as on the Secretary of State website. The posting at the Warwick Library did not occur within the required time frame, so, in an abundance of caution, the council postponed consideration of Vella-Wilkinson’s resolution.

But the absence of an official platform did not stop parties from promoting their positions between committee hearings and the meeting that followed. Providence Chamber President Laurie White and her delegation talked with council members, as did RIAC President Kevin Dillon. Gregory Mancini, executive director and general counsel to the trades council gave out copies of a letter to Place, asking that he consider “the significant economic consequences to the construction industry” of delay.

“It is our hope that rather than appeal this decision you discuss and negotiate your concerns and the concerns of your constituents with the airport corporation so that a reasonable compromise can be reached,” Mancini wrote.

RIAC’s new local lobbyist, attorney K. Joseph Shekarchi, introduced chamber leaders to council members and conferred with Place and other members.

“I’ll be back,” White vowed, as she and her group left council chambers.

Certain to return are the group of residents that have closely followed airport developments for decades, including Michael Zarum and Raleigh Jenkins.

Zarum, who served on a committee appointed by the mayor to select legal airport representation six years ago, was instrumental in connecting Taber with the council. The administration never retained outside counsel to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration’s study of airport projects or the record of decision issued this September. Mayor Scott Avedisian’s conclusion, after a review of the environmental impact statement, was that there were few grounds to base an appeal. However, he did not stand in the way of Vella-Wilkinson’s resolution that will tap $65,000 budgeted for airport litigation, although he did not sign it.

The administration also remembers that much of what council members say they want from RIAC was already included in a memorandum of agreement reached with Dillon more than a year ago and rejected by the council.

Heading concerns, as articulated by Steve Merolla, D-Ward 9 and Joseph Solomon, D-Ward 4, are the lack of a timetable and guarantees for the acquisition of homes and businesses; a system for collecting deicing fluid that now runs into the storm water system and Buckeye Brook; and air quality monitoring. As for the cost of litigation, Solomon argues there should be no price on the health and safety.

Jenkins, who served on a RIAC-appointed committee that was eventually disbanded, said the process used by the FAA cut out citizen involvement by limiting its stakeholder panel to select representatives. He says the process is flawed.

Place said later this week that he favors a “small” committee that would meet with Shekarchi and RIAC representatives and report to the full council. While there have been requests from individuals other than council members to be a part of the committee, Place said it would be restricted to council members and a representative of the administration, possibly City Planner William DePasquale.

“I want to keep this as small as possible so it doesn’t get bogged down. Everyone’s intent to get this resolved,” Place said. By the same token Place said, “We don’t want to roll over.”

As the suit is against the FAA, Place said RIAC is “out of it,” but he reasons they could make guarantees that would enable the council to drop its action.

“The sticking issues are environmental concerns,” he said, “and until we can get them resolved we’ll continue the suit.”

Merolla favors the committee approach as it the group not only to open talks with RIAC but also communicate with Taber.

He said he reviewed issues with Shekarchi and the feeling is that they are not insurmountable.

“We’re just asking for simple things that anyone would do,” he said.

FAA prepares to respond to council

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of preparing an administrative record as the first step in its response to the City Council’s petition for a review of their decision favoring a series of Green Airport projects including the extension of Runway 5-23 to 8,700 feet.

“We’re pulling all the documents together,” FAA spokesman Jim Peters said Monday. He said the agency is waiting for the assignment of an attorney from the Department of Justice who is most likely to come from the department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

Peters said the agency is faced with a Jan. 6, 2012 deadline to file an index to the documents in the District of Columbia Circuit Court. He said those responses should be available online as well as through a subscription court service called Pacer.

Peters was unable to provide statistics on how many petitions for review have been filed of FAA records of decision or their outcome.

“Generally,” he said, “we tend to have courts find in our favor.”

In addition to the Warwick City Council, the Town of Stratford, Conn. petition for a review of the decision favoring extended runway safety areas at the Bridgeport-Sikorsky Memorial Airport, which is located in Stratford, is the only similarly related legal action pending in the FAA New England Region. The FAA has nine regions nationwide.

The Bridgeport-Sikorsky Memorial Airport record of decision was rendered Sept. 28 of this year.