Two rounds with RIAC
The Rhode Island Airport Corporation joined two community forums hosted by the New Shoreham Town Council on July 7 and July 12. Though it had originally planned only one forum, due to a mix-up with the Zoom password that resulted in many townsfolk being unable to join the meeting, the town council quickly added
a second session so everyone could attend. The purpose of the forums was to gather citizen comments about RIAC’s request for proposals regarding Block Island Airport property development as part of its General Aviation Strategic Business Plan.
Back in June, the Town Council met with RIAC to receive an update on RIAC’s proposed changes to the Block Island Airport in order to increase its revenue. It is RIAC’s position that the five general aviation airports in the state are too heavily subsidized by T.F. Green Airport, and it seeks to make the smaller airports more
The proposals to increase revenue include instituting parking fees and leasing airport land for commercial development. RIAC has engaged Cushman and Wakefield, Hayes and Sherry to represent its real estate interests and they in turn have created an advertising brochure requesting proposals and suggesting uses for potential tenants on four designated areas on the airport’s property. At this June meeting the council decided to hold a community forum to make sure everyone had the opportunity to weigh in.
Attendees at the two July meetings included airport stakeholders such as private aviators, abutting neighbors, and concerned citizens of the island, who all spoke in opposition to the proposals contained in the Cushman and Wakefield brochure.
Second Warden Sven Risom, who ran the meetings in First Warden Andre Boudreau’s absence, mentioned the large number of emails the council had received, and when asked if any of them had been in favor of the proposals, Risom replied: “No, as a general statement.”
The citizens who called in echoed many of the points made in the emails.
Jake Kramer urged the town council to “stand up for us” in opposing RIAC’s proposals, pointing out that “RIAC doesn’t care about Block Island residents; RIAC
cares about RIAC.”
Henry duPont voiced his opinion that RIAC “rolls towns over,” stating, “in the end, they do whatever they want to do with very little consideration for whatever the community asks for.” He also said RIAC should “concentrate on providing services that are missing.”
“This is the only airport in the state that does not have the full suite of aviation services, including fuel service, hangar storage, wifi, a pilot briefing and weather room, and a battery cart to start dead batteries,” duPont said. “If RIAC wants to spend their money to make our airport a better airport, that’s the direction to go.”
Sean McGarry told the council that RIAC’s plans “won’t fit here on Block Island,” and that he was sure “the conservation groups are going to really step up.”
Rick Vila also commented on the conservation side of things, specifying that one of the areas slated for potential development is recognized as a habitat for the endangered blazing star and the endangered burying beetle.
Dorrie Napoleone, President of Block Island Conservancy, spoke to the council and echoed many of the sentiments expressed in the letter BI Conservancy sent the town council last month. Napoleone described how some of the land the airport now uses was originally part of Nathan Mott Park, Block Island’s first conservation area, and was condemned by the state to build the airport in a case of eminent domain, taking private land for public use. Napoleone said the uses proposed for the
area designated BID-1 in the Cushman and Wakefield brochure, outdoor storage, office space, and green initiatives, are “private, commercial enterprises, not for the benefit of the public.”
“The land was condemned for public use and benefit, not for private gain,” Napoleone said. The airport is made up of approximately 113 acres, with 21 acres located across Center Road from the airfield and terminals.
In its letter, Block Island Conservancy also opposed the proposal for the area designated BID-3 because “this area is documented to be used by the federally threatened American burying beetle, Rhode Island’s state insect whose last remaining self-sustaining population east of the Mississippi is on Block Island.” Additionally, area BID-3 “holds the largest stand (in the state) of the state-endangered plant, northern blazing star.”
At the July 7 meeting, RIAC representatives raised their virtual hands after each citizen to offer counterpoints, despite Risom repeatedly telling them it was not the intention of the forum to create a debate between RIAC and the citizens of Block Island. He reiterated numerous times the objective of hearing from the public and
receiving their input.
RIAC persisted with the tactic, with Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Brian Schattle, Senior Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Dennis Greco, Director of Human Resources Brittany Pagliarini, Director of Media and Public Relations John Goodman, and CEO of Flightlevel Aviation Peter Eichleay all
calling in to argue the statements made by the public.
Schattle and Goodman both said the parking and storage proposals were in response to feedback from the town. Eichleay, whose company is hired by RIAC to act as fixed base operator (FBO) for Block Island Airport, let everyone know he considered the citizens of Block Island calling in to be “the peanut gallery.” This seemed to hinder the effectiveness of RIAC’s various statements in support of public input. Eichleay did call back in on July 12 to apologize, claiming that at many meetings he goes to, the audience is referred to as the “peanut gallery,” and he meant “nothing derogatory.”
RIAC shifted into damage control mode and reached out to The Times to make sure it was aware of RIAC’s various efforts to engage in public discourse on these matters, specifically citing a public meeting on November 15, 2019 and a public meeting on January 5, 2021.
The November 2019 meeting notes list “Town attendees” as Ed Roberge, then the town manager, Risom, Councilor Martha Ball, Land Use Administrator Jennifer Brady, and duPont. According to the meeting notes provided by RIAC, in response to RIAC’s explanation of their financial difficulties associated with the general aviation airport system: “the Town suggested that additional revenue opportunities be evaluated such as fuel sales and storage units, including boats. There is also a need for additional parking for towed vehicles. It was noted that some adjacent land has endangered species and there are obstacles for some land use.”
Also in this November meeting, RIAC said its role “isn’t to dictate what the airports should be, but rather help implement what is defined as the future of the airport.”
At the public input meeting in January 2021, former Senior Vice President and Chief Infrastructure Officer Christine Vitt reiterated this message, saying: “We would
like to remind people that RIAC cannot and should not choose the future direction nor scale of general aviation airports alone.”
Vitt went on to explain that RIAC was in the “exploration stage of how we may be able to inch our way [to the Block Island airport’s self-sustainability.]” Vitt also mentioned that parking and storage ideas were not RIAC’s ideas, having come out of meetings “with stakeholders and folks on the island.”
Risom addressed RIAC’s claim that this was all the town’s idea in the first place, stating that he was “one of the few people that has been at almost every RIAC meeting. There was discussion about parking, but really that discussion was about pay-for parking next to the airport, for example for long term. There wasn’t any discussion that I recall about daily parking. Block Island is a different place, we don’t even have pay-for beach parking. That is just not our culture. It’s something that we don’t think is right for Block Island. The same thing, in my mind, holds for the airport.” Risom went on to say there was also discussion of storage issues at these preliminary meetings, “but not about leasing lots of land that were outside the bounds of the airport property. That was potentially about putting storage next to parking. As Henry may remember, we walked that land.”
Since the time of those early meetings, RIAC has quickly “inched its way” through the “exploration stage” and has engaged Cushman and Wakefield to lease the property, although Schattle confirmed RIAC “doesn’t have any proposals at this time.”
No action on resolution
The town council had an item on the July 12 agenda to discuss and act on a resolution in response to RIAC’s proposals. Over half of the letters received by the council urged a formal resolution opposing the plans for development. The council was unable to craft a resolution at the meeting, however.
“We received a letter from RIAC at 4 p.m. I think that’s a little late, and not everyone has seen it. It is asking for the council’s position on a number of issues,” Martha Ball informed the public at the 5 p.m. meeting.
Council member Keith Stover suggested the letter be made available to the public, saying it was “worth reviewing” before crafting a resolution. Stover also said there
was “virtual unanimity in the community about this offering, and we should proceed to working on the resolution.”
Speaking further about the community response, Stover said: “The consensus has been remarkable, and the objections have been quite focused on conservation lands, on appropriate use, and on consistency with town zoning ordinances.” He said “the path to satisfaction is quite clear and there is remarkable consensus in the community on what that path is.”
Council member Mark Emmanuelle agreed, saying: “RIAC’s intentions are incompatible with us, and I will proceed accordingly.”
Risom said he thought the council should absorb the questions in the letter from RIAC, as well as the input from the public, and that the council “will be issuing a statement and letter to RIAC.”
Despite Risom’s comments to the contrary, RIAC’s Goodman called into the July 12 meeting to say, again, the request for proposals by Cushman and Wakefield is “in line with what past councils have asked for.” He went on to say, “if it is no longer desired by the town council for these initiatives to be considered, we will respect that.”
Despite these types of statements by the public relations director, many people do not seem to take RIAC at their word. As Emmanuelle put it: “They might say they’re listening, but I don’t think they’re hearing us.”