Opposition to Westerly Airport plan

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 9:30am
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Saying it has run out of options, Rhode Island Airport Corporation is beginning to make preparations to shorten landing lengths at two runways at the Westerly Airport.

According to RIAC’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Maintenance Alan Andrade, the physical length of the runways won’t be reduced, but a line marking where landings can begin may be moved hundreds of feet down the runway from where they are now.

Bill Bendokas, co-owner of New England Airlines, and who has been flying out of Westerly for about 50 years, said the shorter landing length will not directly impact his planes, but he said a longer landing length is always safer. Bendokas is among a number of local aviation businesses asking the town of Westerly to broker a peace between RIAC and the neighboring homeowners who own the trees that have become so tall they are obstructing the runways. 

Bendokas, citing safety and the importance of the Westerly Airport to Block Islanders, is also asking the New Shoreham Town Council to weigh in on the issue.

First Warden Ken Lacoste, when told of the request, said he “will certainly reach out to the concerns and have a discussion on our next agenda, Dec. 4. I have been keeping tabs on it and was aware that RIAC had backed off the idea of total airport closure, which would have been devastating for Block Island. The newest proposal would obviously have a real effect on Westerly. We should explore what residual effects it might have on Block Island, if any, and act accordingly. I will reach out to the interested parties and prepare for our discussion in December.” 

The Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, in its most recent newsletter, said the “Chamber is advocating for honoring the town’s Comprehensive Plan and having the Town make a good faith attempt at mediating a compromise rather than staying out of the discussion. 

The airport is a critical transportation infrastructure. Its value to the local economy is significant and was measured at over 8 million (dollars) more than 6 years ago.” 

Andrade said that RIAC, too, was waiting on direction from the Westerly Town Council.

“Basically, we’re waiting for the town,” said Andrade. “We have obstruction to the approach surface on two of the runways. 

We’ve tried to negotiate with the residents, a voluntary negotiation that didn’t work.” Andrade also said that RIAC attempted to have the trees removed through eminent domain, but the neighbors fought that in court and won an injunction.The situation became contentious enough that some residents suggested simply shutting the airport down, said Bendokas, but that was never a serious option. 

Andrade said that RIAC has no interest in going to court to challenge that injunction, but he did say the airport was now operating without any Federal Aviation Administration procedures in place, which was why “either those trees need to go or we need to displace the threshold” — that is, reduce the landing length on the runways. 

“That’s our option right now,” said Andrade. He saw some hope that individuals in Westerly were now stepping in to help mediate the situation. 

Bendokas said he estimated the landing threshold would have to be moved back between 500 to 700 feet, and Andrade said that was a guess, but it was also what RIAC was starting to work on to determine, he said. The Westerly runways are 4,000 feet long; Block Island’s are 2,500 feet long.

While he reiterated that the runway displacement did not impact New England Airlines, Bendokas called the action to shorten the landing length “a slippery slope” and hoped that it could be deterred. 

“Westerly should do everything in its power to maintain the current operations and avoid runway displacement,” the Ocean Community Chamber newsletter stated. “It’s a fact — longer runways are more safe... Regardless of where you stand on the issue, please get engaged in the discussion and share your viewpoint. This is a watershed moment for the town.”

Andrade expressed hope the situation would be resolved. “It’s frustrating for everybody,” said Andrade. “It’s frustrating for me. I respect the property owner.”