Friday, November 13, 2020

Westerly, Rhode Island: Town Council to discuss taking clearer position on airport proposal

WESTERLY — The Town Council will consider taking a firmer stance on proposed legislation that critics say would make it easier for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to clear flight obstructions surrounding airports, including Westerly State Airport.

On Monday, during a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m., the council is expected to discuss a proposed resolution that would outline the council's opposition to the "Preservation of Safe Airspace" bill. In July, an amended version of the bill was approved by the state Senate by a 35-1 vote, with two senators not voting. The council resolution would be aimed at a state House of Representatives version of the bill.

In October the council voted to deny RIAC's request for it to write a letter in support of the bill. Councilor Sharon Ahern, during the council's Nov. 9 meeting, said the council had only gone "halfway" by denying RIAC's request for a letter. The  proposed resolution, she said, would clarify the council's position on RIAC's attempted "airspace grab."

"We left it undone but what we really need to do is to ask our representative that they not pass it when it comes before them at the House level," Ahern said.

The bill, according to a news release from RIAC, would affirm current state laws and "provide a statewide solution to address airspace obstructions by clarifying state law as consistent with federal law, while improving airspace protection coordination among local, state and federal jurisdictions for publicly owned airports."

The bill would add to the state Department of Transportation's authority by giving it a legal right to purchase or condemn (take by eminent domain) airspace in addition to its current authority to purchase or condemn land. The bill would also newly specify that the authority would apply to preserving or maintaining approach areas. Definitions of airport "approach, approaches and approach zones" to comply with definitions used by the Federal Aviation Administration are included in the bill.

Four Westerly property owners are suing RIAC and the state DOT, claiming the agencies did not have a legal right to take avigation easements on their property to remove trees that RIAC says have grown too tall and are obstructing safe air travel. The lawsuit is pending in Superior Court and the trees were left standing pending resolution of the lawsuit.

In June, RIAC announced that preliminary findings of an airspace analysis may lead to displacement of runways at Newport State Airport, where property owners have also resisted RIAC's efforts to negotiate for airspace easements.

State Sen. Dennis Algier, R-Westerly, and William Conley, who serves as Westerly's town attorney and is also a state senator, voted in favor of the state Senate version of the bill.

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