Pros, Cons of Airport Aired as Panel Named to Follow Runway Appeal

Warwick Beacon Online
Decmber 22, 2011 By Jessica Botelho

Fed Up FED UP: Seventeen people addressed the City Council on Monday night during a lengthy discussion in regards to a resolution, which was unanimously approved, to establish a City Council airport litigation committee. Phillip Dercole and his wife Carmen speak of airport issues with Dan Murphy.

The discussion that went on for more than 90 minutes at Monday night’s Council meeting was supposed to be in regards to a resolution to establish a City Council airport litigation committee. But a majority of the 17 people who spoke voiced their opinion on airport expansion, as the council suspended rules and allowed for public comment.

Nevertheless, the resolution was unanimously approved.

In a phone interview on Tuesday morning, Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said she recognizes that some people are frustrated and was not surprised by the commentary.

“A lot of their comments were not specific to the resolution but they saw it as their one last opportunity to let the members of the council know how severe the airport has affected them,” said Vella-Wilkinson. She co-sponsored the resolution with Council President Bruce Place to create the committee.

The committee is charged with pursuing the council’s petition for a review of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) record of decision approving extension of the airport’s major runway to 8,700 feet and a series of other airport improvement projects. Also, the committee will meet with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) in an effort to determine whether Council concerns over public health, water and air monitoring and the scheduling of improvements can be met and the appeal dropped.

Should litigation be pursued, it is estimated it could delay $166 million in airport projects by as much as two years and cost Warwick taxpayers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

At the meeting, resident Phillip Dercole made it clear that he’s opposed to airport expansion and said the Providence Greater Chamber of Commerce speaks for the business community in the state. He said that while he understands the chamber believes a longer runway will improve the economy, he doubts it will enhance the quality of life for citizens and wildlife alike.

Dercole voiced his concern for Buckeye Brook, Mill Cove and Warwick Pond, as he lives near the pond.

He asked the council to consider that pollutants have been discharged into the environment with little to no mandatory testing or monitoring by RIAC and DEM during the past 25 years. He thinks there might be a correlation to the fact that he no longer sees frogs, snakes or turtles on or around the pond.

“There is a pair of swans that call Warwick Pond their home [and my wife and I] named affectionately Harry and Sally,” said Dercole. “In the past four years, their six to seven cygnets have been born with abnormalities and one survives to adulthood.”

During a brief interview after addressing the council he said, “RIAC: no matter what they tell you, it’s all lies.”

Janice Pangman, who grew up in near the airport and still lives in the area, said she is disturbed by the environmental factors and health problems it imposes through carcinogens emitted from planes. She said she is bothered that the FAA has not sufficiently addressed these issues and wants the council to take firmer action.

“The heat is on,” she said. “You are being criticized and they are going to try to beat you down for not approving the economic development, new jobs and the revenue the city of Warwick and the state would receive.”

A handful of other residents agreed that they are concerned with the health and well being of the community. Among them was Rob Cote. He also said that the biggest airport supporters have one thing in common: speculation.

“We keep hearing, ‘If we build it, they’ll come,’” he said.

Further, Dan Murphy spoke against the airport.

“It comes down to the business community enriching itself,” he said.

While they opposed the airport, they were in favor of the committee, as was Laurie White, president of the Providence Greater Chamber of Commerce. She said she hopes the committee works “expeditiously and with great focus” and hopes the council drops their recent appeal for a review of the FAA record of decision.

When White said expansion would be an economical asset to all of Rhode Island, Vella-Wilkinson asked, since she views it as a benefit for the state, if she would testify to the General Assembly on behalf of the city of Warwick that the tax burden be distributed throughout the 37 cities and towns of Rhode Island. Her question was met with applause from the audience of nearly 100.

Before White had a chance to answer, Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon said he wasn’t in agreement of Vella-Wilkinson’s question, as he thought she was attempting to negotiate. He said her tone was inappropriate and that if Vella-Wilkinson was curious, she should privately meet with White.

Vella-Wilkinson said she felt she was respectful and didn’t badger White. When White spoke, she failed to give a “yes” or “no” answer but said Warwick benefits from the airport. On Tuesday, Vella-Wilkinson said it was unfortunate that she didn’t provide a straight answer.

Soon after, resident Raleigh Jenkins said he was uncomfortable with the way the resolution was being discussed. He said he didn’t think the purpose was to litigate, deal and bargain with the airport.

“I see no room right now to defocus,” he said. “We’re challenging a record of decision and I think everything else is a sideshow and further manipulation of the people.”

While Jenkins said he no longer knows if he is in support of the committee, other people said they are in favor of it. Citizen George Townsend is one of them.

“I believe that if the city of Warwick is going to grow, the airport has to grow,” he said.

Bill Holmes, a resident who lives a mile and a half from the airport and is the business manager for the Rhode Island Carpenters’ Union, a group with 2,000 members, said the expansion is an opportunity to create jobs. He doesn’t see the need to further postpone it.

“Anything we do to delay this project is delaying people from going back to work,” he said.

As a member of the abolished Warwick Station Redevelopment Agency, Holmes said the agency spent a lot of time developing the master plan for the Intermodal district. He considers the district a “great” project and urged the committee to work as quickly as possible, otherwise it might jeopardize its viability.

Bob Cioe of C O Construction Co., LLC., supported expansion. Cioe, whose company is building the Wickford Junction station and parking garage, called the airport a “tax generator.”

Moreover, citizen Richard Langseth said he thinks it’s a “great idea” to create a committee but recommended that it holds open sessions for public participation to create transparency.

But councilmembers Vella-Wilkinson, Place and Steve Merolla said while they understand Langseth’s point, it’s not best for the situation. Merolla elaborated by saying litigation strategies should not be public knowledge because it would interfere with the process and not be the best move for Warwick.

“If you’re going to throw a pitch, you’re not going to tell the other side the pitch,” he said.

Attorney K. Joseph Shekarchi, who represents RIAC, agreed. He also said he appreciates the chance to “pause and reset” with the City Council and welcomes the opportunity to negotiate a mutually beneficial arrangement that takes residents, business communities and environmental issues into concern.

Resident Michelle Komar suggested Warwick Planning Department Director William DePasquale as a non-voting member of the committee. The council agreed, added it as an amendment and approved it with a 6-3 vote, with Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice, Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuano and Ward 8 Councilman Raymond Gallucci opposed.

Vella-Wilkinson thinks appointing DePasquale is a good decision because he has a “tremendous amount of corporate knowledge with regards to the airport and has done the lion’s share of research and preparation of commentary for the mayor.”

Three other amendments were added to the resolution. One changed language to, “the City Council adopted a resolution to petition a group meeting of the FAA record of decision for T.F. Green Airport and Taber Law Group is retained to the City of Warwick regarding the petition for repair filed in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia,” while another changed language to, “the City Council desires to seek a thorough and fair review of the record of decision to reach an equitable resolution that will protect the short term and long term interests of the City, its residents and business owners.”

The final amendment was added per the suggestion of Warwick School Committee member Gene Nadeau, as he questioned language relevant to the voting members of the committee, which the resolution stated to be the council president, the Ward 3 councilperson, plus a councilperson of their choosing. He wondered what would happen if current members were to leave the council in the future and where the committee would stand in that case.

City Solicitor John Harrington suggested an amendment be made and Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon put forth a resolution to change language from a councilperson selected by the council president and Ward 3 councilperson to a councilperson from Ward 9.