Airport neighbors sound alarm over proposed tree-cutting | Daily-news-alerts

Airport neighbors sound alarm over proposed tree-cutting | Daily-news-alerts

WESTERN – Residents who live near Westerly Airport say they fear the Rhode Island Airport Corporation plans a repeat of the 2005 “clear-cutting” of trees in their neighborhood in the name of flight safety.

That was her message to the City Council on March 20, when RIAC officials paid a visit to the council to brief members on operations at Westerly Airport.

Local residents fear the work will result in more frequent flights and more noise and light from larger and louder planes.

Some said they received a letter from RIAC about its plans to acquire “navigational easements,” or areas of land or airspace that contain trees or other objects that could block a pilot’s clear view of part of a runway and pose a hazard.

Hatsy Moore said 44 residents received a letter from RIAC on February 27 regarding the possible easements.

“Residents are not required to surrender their property for an aviation easement,” Moore said. She also said RIAC has so far failed to provide a final report of an assessment by engineering firm Stantec Consulting Services Inc. on proposals to mitigate obstacles around Westerly Airport.

One of the proposals would reportedly affect 250 acres of vegetation, including 29 acres of wetlands. It would mean that RIAC would acquire 162 easements over personal property. Another option would be to partially clear 21 acres of trees and acquire 44 easements.

Councilor Joy Cordio asked how residents could start receiving notifications that their trees were being cut if Stantec didn’t release its final report.

“We’ve all seen the study,” Cordio said. “Where’s the final report? We should see that, the community should see it.”

There is a long history of tensions between the agency that operates the state’s six airports and local residents who live below the flight path of planes that arrive and depart from Westerly.

“History shows that they really are after the 162 easements,” said Moore, who was part of a 2016 lawsuit in which he argued that the state’s Department of Transportation illegally used significant domain powers to seize airspace easements to remove trees from removing residential property. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the DOT in 2021.

RIAC officials argue that the work was mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow planes to land and take off safely at airports. A state law that has been in effect since 1999 also requires municipalities to maintain airport overlay zoning that limits the height of structures and obstructions near runways.

The removal of the disruption affects all five general aviation airports in the state and is part of RIAC’s $100 million, 10-year strategic business plan released in January 2022.

“We’re simply doing what federal law tells us to do, which is to make sure airports stay safe,” said RIAC spokesman John Goodman. He also contradicted claims by local residents that RIAC was “digging up” the vegetation down to bare dirt.

In some ways, the issue is not complex, said Brittany Morgan, RIAC’s chief legal counsel and chief of staff.

“Tree growth is a major concern for all airports and Westerly is no exception,” said Morgan.

As in the past, RIAC pointed to a fatal plane crash in 2003 at Westerly Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board noted that the incident developed in part due to “obscured aerial and ground visibility of the traffic pattern by trees at the departure end of the runway.”

With unresolved litigation and trees continuing to grow, RIAC had to shorten the usable runway, Morgan said. That limits the size of planes that can operate there, she said.

“As long as the trees continue to grow, this runway may need to be moved further,” she said.

RIAC also had to return about $90,000 in federal funds to the FAA because it was unable to clear roadblocks at Westerly, she added.

The problem of trees growing into airspace is not unique to Westerly.

“The federal government has a process in place by which they will compensate an individual property owner for this airspace easement,” Goodman said. It can run into tens of thousands of dollars, he said, and often involves replacement vegetation that doesn’t grow into the airspace.

“The federal government and RIAC just want to make sure everything fits together nicely,” he said.

Tree felling around the airport in 2005 still left local residents bitter.

Sally and Chris Lawlor moved into a custom built home on Donross Drive, adjacent to the Winnapaug Hills golf course, in 2000. The neighborhood had agreements protecting trees on the residential lots, Sally Lawlor said.

The airport was not visible from the surrounding dense forest, and the only planes they saw were prop planes flying high above the trees.

“In 2004-05, RIAC sent us a letter saying they were taking trees on the two lots next to ours,” she said. The agency offered the couple $110,000 for the trees and easement, she said. They declined the offer.

“Because an easement stays with your property forever,” she said. “We also knew that if we sold our trees, RIAC wanted to cut down all of the trees on Donross Drive. We do not have that.”

She said that RIAC not only cut down trees, but “cleared” the land, leaving only dirt and tree stumps, she said, providing photos.

Afterward, the cleared land created a wind tunnel that generated dangerous crosswinds, pilots reportedly told the couple. Residents shoveled dirt from the bare ground of their porches. Without the tree barrier, flickering runway lights any time of night drove neighbors to sell their homes.

“Only two original owners still live on Donross Drive or Links Passage,” she said since the work began in 2005.

Former resident Anthony Palozzolo said his brother’s Cone Street home has 10 old red oak trees. The trees grow to 60 or 70 feet and then stop.

“These trees haven’t grown taller in decades,” he said.

The airport’s runway 14 approach zone cuts about a quarter of its brother’s property. Palozzolo studied and compared RIAC’s proposals and current city GIS maps of the area.

“All of a sudden, my brother’s entire property is inside the approach zone,” he said. “I think it’s clear that this is about expanding the approach zone.”

He asked the city to evaluate whether Stantec’s new plan complies with zoning regulations.

“If not, that could be a zoning violation, we may need to put the brakes on that,” he said.

The FAA-directed runway clearing certification process includes environmental studies and acquisition of easements, followed by design and approval prior to actual work.

Westerly and Newport airports are in what is known as Phase 2, meaning their clear approach certifications would not take place until May 2026, according to the RIAC. Phase 1 work includes Rhode Island’s TF Green International Airport, Block Island Airport and North Central State Airport.

RIAC has held a series of online Zoom meetings at City Hall, the last on January 18. There are plans to hold another one on April 19 at noon, when comments from the public will be allowed.

“We recognize that communities and residents are not expected to be experts on federal, state and local regulations related to airports,” Goodman said.