For more than a decade a proposed improvement plan for T.F. Green Airport, including an expansion plan of the main runway, has left some homeowners and businesses wondering if they’d have to move to accommodate the changes. This week: one Warwick business is suing the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, saying RIAC promised to buy its lot on Airport Road, only to pull out of the deal – leaving the business holding a piece of unmarketable property.
Twenty-two years ago Airport Valet Inc. began offering a new – and novel – service for those flying out of the old terminal at T.F. Green Airport.
Horlbogen: “We have a little booth with a red carpet, people would first drop off their bags, and then valet attendants would be right there at the booth and the red carpet and as guys and gals were dropping off their bags, they would approach them to park their car.’’
Owner Bob Horlbogen initially had the blessing of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. But after a very successful first year, the corporation stopped allowing the valets to set up at the terminal, as it was trying to develop its own long-term parking business.
Undeterred, Horlbogen set up shop in nearby off-site lots, before eventually settling in five years ago at property he owned on Airport Road, directly across the street from the north end of Green Airport. What started out as an amicable relationship with the airport, has evolved into a legal battle, with Airport Valet filing suit last month against the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, saying went back on a promise to buy its land for airport expansion – and at the same time has been trying to force the company out of business, even though Airport Valet pays a 12 percent fee for the right to access airport property with its vans. That’s up from 4 percent when it started in 1993.
Horlbogen: “We were told that, you know, Airport Road was going o be relocated and we had to find another location.’’
The airport had talked about expanding for more than a decade. And while much of that discussion focused on taking houses south of the main runway, Horlbogen said both the FAA and the airport corporation made it clear the airport expansion plans included taking Airport Valet’s lot on Airport Road.
Horlbogen had also asked about leasing this lot from the airport corporation, across from the Radisson. He says the corporation told him it had plans for the property and that he couldn’t’ use it. The lot, years later, still sits empty.
So Horlbogen scrambled to find another location near the airport; no easy feat as he needed five to six acres for parking. In 2012 he signed a lease for this property, just south of the airport entrance on Post Road, less than a minute’s drive from lot, to terminal.
He figured once he sold the Airport Road lot to the airport corporation, he’d be fine financially. But Horlbogen, in his lawsuit and in a subsequent interview with The Hummel Report, says the airport changed course right after he’d moved operations to Post Road.
Horlbogen: “We’re carrying a bank note on the property on Airport Road, we have the property taxes on the Airport Road property, you have the insurance costs, the utility costs, and what we had planned on was the airport taking the property on Airport Road and compensating us for it accordingly, and we would use the income from that to make the move to Post Road.’’
Hummel: “At what point did the tune change?’’
Horlbogen: “Just prior to our moving, they made an announcement that it appeared as though the relocation of Airport Road wasn’t going to happen, for whatever reason, they had a new technology that would facilitate them to not having to move Airport Road.’’
And, Horlbogen said, the airport was working behind the scenes to make doing business difficult. Airport Valet needed approval from the Warwick Zoning Board in late 2012 to make some modifications on the new Post Road location. But the interim president of the corporation at the time, Peter Frazier, sent a letter to the board, opposing Airport Valet’s request, saying there was “ample, adequate parking available at the airport’’ They got approval from the city anyway.
Holrbogen decided it was time to have a meeting with the corporation.
Horlbogen: “We approached them, had a meeting with them, and they came to my offices on Airport Road and did, in fact, indicate, yeah, that we’re not going to be moving Airport Road. And we consequently asked them: are you going to take our property? And they indicated that at that point in time they didn’t have any interest in taking the property.’’
Hummel: “Were you able to pull back at that point?’’
Horlbogen: “From the new location? No, we had committed to a lease, we had already started moving to that location. We were operating out of that location.’’
Horlbogen has tried – unsuccessfully – to sell the Airport Road lot for three years. Last month, with declining ridership at the airport, and unable to pay both a lease and a mortgage, he closed the business – putting more than a dozen full-time people out of work.
Horlbogen: “They indicated they felt that we were in competition with them, and as such, they didn’t feel compelled to have to purchase the property.’’
The airport corporation declined our request for an on-camera interview, but a spokeswoman issued a statement that says, in part: “The Rhode Island Airport Corporation believes the recent lawsuit filed by Airport Valet is completely without merit and will be vigorously defended in court. In particular, RIAC denies that it sought to put Airport Valet out of business, or that it any damages it claimed to have suffered resulted from any action on RIAC’s part.’’
Providence Attorney Michael Kelly filed the lawsuit against the corporation.
Kelly: “I find it troubling that a government agency, and all we hear these days is `creating jobs, creating jobs’ would take the attitude that because you’re in competition with our airport parking, we’re going to let you die on the vine, so to speak, and we’re going to put these people out of bueinss.’’
Hummel: “The devil’s advocate would say: There’s not signed contract. They may have said this, plans change, I don’t see his signature anywhere, so we don’t have any liability there. What do you say to that?’’
Kelly: “Well, that’s certainly what the airport corporation is going to say. I expect them to say that. However, there is some case law, not so much from Rhode Island, but around the country, which indicates once a government agency embarks on a plan to take one’s property and in fact publishes that, which is what the airport corporation did. And in fact told Bob he had to move his company, we have some cases around the country that say that amounts to a condemnation, whether there’s a written contract or not.’’
Attorney Nicholas Goodier is working on the case with Kelly and says Horlbogen’s property is surrounded by other lots the airport corporation has purchased.
Goodier: “Other aspects of the plan were narrowed, but it was always ultimately, this property is going to be taken, properties around it were taken, and sit abandoned.’’
Kelly: “They followed the advice, and the instructions of the airport corporation, find another location and then as a result of that proposed expansion and some new rules that have been put in place by the airport corporation their property is just totally worthless.’’
Horlbogen, in the lawsuit, says the airport corporation said it would consider buying the property, if Airport Valey stopped doing business.
Horlbogen: “We’ve tried to market the property when it became clear the airport corporation didn’t want to take the property for obvious reasons, because we think they wanted to put us out of business. That the was the game plan from Day 1.’’
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