Council Working on Demands of Airport

Warwick Beacon Online
January 12, 2012 By John Howell

In the words of Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) CEO Kevin Dillon, “time is of the essence.”

But so far nothing substantial has come out of the City Council’s appeal for a review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) decision of approval of T.F. Green Airport projects, including the extension of the main runway from 7,166 to 8,700 feet.

That may change when a council committee and RIAC representatives meet for the first time on Jan. 20 at City Council Chambers. The committee will hold a brief, probably no more than a 15-minute, session at which it will accept public comment before going into executive session to discuss what it would hope to gain in exchange for dropping the appeal.

Since the council voted to retain California aviation lawyer Steve Taber to challenge the FAA record of decision issued in September, the three-member committee has met twice for a total of about five hours. There has been some discussion with RIAC attorney and lobbyist K. Joseph Shekarchi, but no formal request has been forwarded to RIAC.

By this time, Dillon had hoped for some correspondence and a beginning of talks.

“It’s disappointing,” he said Monday, “we had hoped to meet as soon as possible.”

Dillon is hopeful of reaching an agreement so as to apply for federal funding and start construction of the projects, the first of which would be runway safety areas to the shorter runway requiring the acquisition of 10 Airport Road businesses so as to realign the Airport and Post Road intersection.

“I think every day that goes by keeps people in a state of uncertainty,” Dillon said. Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who chairs the committee said yesterday, “we’re interested in having good solid communication with RIAC … we’re not playing games to drag our feet.” She plans to brief the council on their deliberations at the meeting and said that the committee’s intent is to come up with an agreement that is “fair and enforceable.” In arguing for the appeal, council members cited the need to ensure the health and safety of residents, assurances that home acquisitions would occur and that the Winslow Park ball fields lost to the runway extension would be relocated at RIAC’s expense. Also sought by the council was the guarantee that RIAC would take steps to further reduce the runoff of de-icing fluid into Buckeye Brook.

Committee member Councilman Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) said Tuesday, because of the confidential nature of negotiations, he could not get into specifics. He said the effort “is moving forward” and that the lines of communication with Shekarchi are open. He said that Taber is available by telephone but he does not expect Taber would attend the Jan. 20 meeting.

“I suspect this is not going to be resolved in one meeting,” he said.

That’s hardly fast enough for Dillon.

“It’s a month after they [the committee] formed and we still don’t know [what the council is looking for]. It leaves a lot of questions,” he said.Vella-Wilkinson said yesterday the committee is moving deliberatively so as not to be in the situation where, because of its haste, it has missed something critical. As for the meeting on the 20th, she said she expects the parties would establish ground rules and listen to what RIAC has to say.“I want to let this happen organically. It’s premature to say what our expectations are,” she siad.

The longer the wait, Dillon implies the fewer options RIAC has to address council demands.

“Some have outdated our control at this point,” he said.

Ironically, since Dillon is looking to move on with talks, the FAA requested a 30-day extension of Taber’s request for backup data on the environmental impact statement on which the FAA based its decision. Vella-Wilkinson said the city had no objection to an extension, however, according to Dillon, it was denied by the court.

“All those documents have been available for quite some time,” Dillon said, adding that any further additional data could have been easily obtained by the city with a freedom on information request.

“I think we know the majority of what we want,” Merolla said.

In addition to Merolla and Vella-Wilkinson, Council President Bruce Place is a voting member of the committee. Non-voting members are City Planner William DePasquale and Council Solicitor John Harrington.

Mayor Scott Avedisian did not stand in the way of retaining Taber – the city budget includes $62,000 for airport litigation – although he does not support the action. Prior to issuance of the decision, the administration met with the council in executive session to review options. While it would delay the airport projects by as much as two years, the administration’s assessment was that, by and large, the FAA had covered its bases in the environmental impact statement and its chances of halting the projects were slim.

Much of what the council is now apparently looking to gain from RIAC appears to have been included in a memorandum of agreement the administration and RIAC hammered out two years ago. The council rejected the agreement, and as Dillon notes, never sought to re-open talks with a counter proposal.

Since the FAA decision, RIAC and the Department of Environmental Management have reached an agreement on a permit that will require the airport to install a system to capture and process de-icing fluid before discharging it into city sewers, thereby reducing pollution to Buckeye Brook. The system is estimated to cost $25 million and will capture 60 percent of the glycol used to de-ice planes.