Legislation to be deliberated as RIAC considers new runway restrictions at Newport State Airport to ensure public safety

WARWICK, RI – Monday, March 2, 2020 – The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) today announced it is seeking the passage of S2547/H7900  also known as the “Preservation of Safe Airspace” bill, which will 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 Senate version of the bill will have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

The Preservation of Safe Airspace bill comes before the committee as initial data from Newport State Airport indicates that a new runway displacement is necessary as a recent survey of growing trees in abutting properties present safety risks that require the corporation to effectively shorten the length of one runway by more than 700 feet to ensure the safety of pilots, passengers and the community. Westerly State Airport, which serves as an essential lifeline to residents of Block Island, has already seen its runway lengths reduced by more than 900 feet. 

The runway restrictions in Newport and Westerly are a result of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements to mitigate hazards to ensure pilots have adequate takeoff and landing clearance and to make certain that pilots have adequate room to avoid collisions with growing trees abutting the airport. RIAC has been very successful in engaging and negotiating necessary airspace easements with nearly all abutting property owners in Westerly and Newport.  However a small percentage of property owners unfortunately have filed suit, resulting in more than three years of ongoing litigation while airspace-obstructing trees have continued to grow.

“We have been working with elected officials and community stakeholders to determine the future of state airports in their respective communities,” said Iftikhar Ahmad, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. “We have made it clear that communities should decide the scope and scale of General Aviation airports, but RIAC has the responsibility to ensure they operate safely. To this end, it is essential that the General Assembly affirm that safe airspace is a necessary component of safe airports through the passage of this legislation.”

Under federal law, when obstructions threatening safe airspace are encountered RIAC is required to mitigate issues and follow a FAA prescribed process to enter into negotiations with abutting landowners to find equitable compensation for airspace easements to cut trees and preserve safe airspace.  A handful of landowners in Westerly and Newport have thus far not agreed to easements, resulting in ongoing litigation while trees continue to grow and further obstruct airspace.  The Preservation of Safe Airspace bill is intended to help foster good faith negotiations to provide reasonable compensation to neighboring landowners and address local airspace obstructions threatening public safety and continued airport operations.

Although the Airport Corporation remains confident that the public’s interest of preserving safe airspace will be affirmed by the courts, RIAC is seeking the passage of S2547/H7900, which will 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 in the state.

S2457/H7900 will help achieve these goals by clarifying existing state law, which recognizes the need for the preservation of airspace vital for “the approach, landing and taking off of aircraft to be utilized in the interest of the public for those purposes.” The bill also affirms existing federal definitions of “Approach, approach zone,” and “approaches” as consistent with definitions of airport land and airspace as set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration as stated in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 77 (“Safe, Efficient Use, and Preservation of the Navigable Airspace.”)

The effect of the bill will be to affirm existing law that “the department of transportation may, with the approval of the governor, and subject to the provisions of chapter 6 of title 37, acquire by purchase or condemnation, any land or any estate or interest in land, including airspace within this state that it may deem necessary for a suitable airport, landing field, or approach” necessary for a suitable airport.

About RIAC: The Rhode Island Airport Corporation was formed on December 9, 1992 as a semi-autonomous subsidiary of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to operate and maintain the state’s airport system. The powers of the corporation are vested in its seven-member board of directors, all of whom are appointed by the governor.  The Rhode Island Airport Corporation is responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the six state-owned airports; and the supervision of all civil airports, landing areas, navigation facilities, air schools and flying clubs. In addition to T. F. Green Airport, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation is responsible for five general aviation airports throughout the state: Block Island, Newport, North Central, Quonset and Westerly. For more information visit RIAC at https://www.pvdairport.com/

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