Facing litigation and with no 'third door,' runways to be displaced at Westerly State Airport

A New England Airlines Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander aircraft takes off from Westerly State Airport en route to Block Island Friday, Dec. 29, 2017.   (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A New England Airlines Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander aircraft takes off from Westerly State Airport en route to Block Island Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Westerly — Faced with an inability to immediately remove trees that obstruct runway approaches at Westerly State Airport, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation will be displacing runway thresholds at the airport.

Threshold displacement does not mean any tarmac will be physically removed but markings will be altered to indicate that a pilot has a shorter distance on which to land.

"At this point, all I can say is that displacement will occur, and we will be releasing the details on which runways will be affected next week," RIAC spokesperson Bill Fischer told The Day on Friday.

It is not yet clear how long displacement would last.

Discussions in recent months on runway displacement, which The Westerly Sun has followed closely, stem from a lawsuit filed on behalf of five property owners facing eminent domain orders.

The complaint was filed in Washington County Superior Court in March 2016, and in February 2017, Judge Luis M. Matos issued a preliminary injunction, preventing tree-clearing from moving forward.

This litigation may not sort itself out for at least a year, and so RIAC had to enact a temporary measure, Fischer noted. He stressed that cutting down trees and shortening runway thresholds are the only two options, that there is no "third door."

While neighbors are pleased the injunction was granted, business owners who rely on the airport say the displacement of runways will hurt them — and possibly put them out of business.

In a Dec. 15 letter to Westerly Town Manager Derrik Kennedy, RIAC Corporate Counsel Annette P. Jacques wrote that as early as 2004, RIAC began negotiating with Westerly residents "whose properties were identified as having trees that penetrated the approach surfaces near the airport."

After a decade, RIAC was not able to secure easements on all impacted properties and sought help from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to exercise its eminent domain authority to acquire 13 avigation easements, the letter stated.

An avigation easement on a property protects airspace above a certain height and restricts the owner’s land usage.

Eight of the property owners accepted payment for the easements but the remaining five filed a lawsuit.

Jacques stated in her letter, "RIAC is confident that the Court will decide that the State has the authority to acquire avigation easements by eminent domain in order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public."

Gregory Massad, attorney for the residents, described RIAC as using "bullying tactics to get people to voluntarily give up their property rights." He stressed the issue is not about a few trees, but about constitutional property rights.

He represents plaintiffs who live on Winnapaug Road, Celtic Court, Seabury Lane and Chamber Way.

One of the plaintiffs, Pat Rutter, told the Town Council at its Dec. 18 meeting that RIAC did not give her a chance to negotiate before taking her entire property by eminent domain, and that the properties taken by eminent domain have been significantly devalued.

Massad said he has not seen evidence to back up claims that businesses will be hurt by runway displacement. Each of the four runways at Westerly State Airport are about 4,000 feet long, and Massad questioned why they can't be shortened, considering runways are about 2,500 feet long on Block Island.

New England Airlines operates flights between Westerly and Block Island, and owner Bill Bendokas said of Block Island runways, "It would be wonderful if it was longer out there. There are times we could operate to and from Westerly but we don't operate in and out of Block Island because of the overall conditions. It could be the winds, or the rain on the runway or ice."

He added that Block Island "has had numerous incidents" of planes running off the end of the runway. Bendokas noted that while New England Airlines can operate from 2,500 feet, some smaller jets can't.

"That would be detrimental to the region, the Westerly region, because they're not all just rich-boy pilots with their jet playthings," he said, taking a stab against some common misconceptions. "Most of the jets that come in here are coming in here for some business reason or another."

But the immediate impact of runway displacement, Bendokas said, would be the nullification of instrument approaches. As opposed to visual flight conditions, instrument flight conditions are when electronic navigational aids are used to help pilots come down through clouds and land safely, he explained.

The Federal Aviation Administration publishes exact paths and altitudes for planes to fly in instrument conditions, he said, and it could take months for the FAA to change navigational charts.

Westerly State Airport would be restricted to visual flight conditions during that time, Bendokas said.

Kevin Allen, manager of Dooney Aviation, said runway displacement could "potentially put us out of business," even if it's only a lessening of 400 feet. He said 70 percent of the business is jet traffic, and that jets "are at their limit right now."

Allen expects jets would go to Groton-New London Airport but said he wouldn't move his business there, because then they'd be competing with Columbia Air Services.

Annette Jacques, corporate counsel for RIAC, said in her letter that "shorter runways will likely limit the size and type of planes that previously were able to land at Westerly Airport."

Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, largely stayed out of the dispute between the neighbors and RIAC, until she learned in October that runway displacement was a possibility.

"We do not support extending the runways or displacing the threshold on any runway, period," Konicki said. "Our chamber position is that we want to protect the infrastructure and services we have presently at the airport and maintain the status of the operations as they exist today."

She cited the importance of the airport to the 10 businesses located there, tourism industry, medical community that relies on it for transports, and local economy in general.

Konicki would like to see residents treated fairly, in terms of communication and compensation from RIAC, but she does not think "that the businesses should have to suffer the consequences and experience the collateral damage of the relationship breakdown [between] the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and some residents in the community."

In a Dec. 15 letter to Westerly Town Council members, Westerly Economic Development Commission Chairwoman Faith Bessette-Zito stated that the EDC does not support displacement of runways.

Town Solicitor William Conley wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to RIAC that the Town Council "does not support displacement of any runway threshold." More than six hours into its Dec. 18 meeting, the Town Council voted 5-2 to include this line in the letter, which was being written because RIAC asked the council for input.

Fischer told The Day on Friday that RIAC has "an enormous amount of respect for the Westerly Town Council ... but the reality is we have an obligation to make sure the airport is run in a safe manner."

e.moser@theday.com

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