Rhode Island Airport's Chief Planner Steps Down

Mar. 7--WARWICK -- For the third time in four years, the Airport Corporation is looking for a new executive to serve as point person on shaping the T.F. Green Airport of the future.

Laurie K. Cullen, who just three weeks ago briefed the board on options for building a longer main runway at Green, has resigned to spend more time with her children and look for a job with shorter hours.

Before coming to Green less than 2 years ago, Cullen worked for 15 years at the Massachusetts Port Authority, in environmental permitting, planning and construction programs for Logan International Airport, Worcester Regional Airport and L.G. Hanscom Field.

March 17 will be her last day as Green's top executive in charge of planning, engineering and the environment.

Warwick City Hall expressed disappointment at the resignation, saying the Rhode Island Airport Corporation seems to replace its lead person on airport expansion about the time the city develops some trust in that person and convinces them that the city has legitimate arguments against further expansion.

In her briefing to the board last month, Cullen emphasized that the corporation needs the city on its side if it hopes to build a longer main runway at Green. Under state law, the City Council can veto any destruction of wetlands in Warwick, even on airport property.

Cullen's unexpected resignation fed suspicion at City Hall that people who shape policy at the corporation can't afford to appear soft on expanding Green into a major airport. That was how City Hall interpreted the departures of Cullen's predecessor, Mary Soderstrum, and former executive director Michael Cheston and former chairman Colby Cameron.

The rate of turnover "certainly makes you wonder," Mayor Scott Avedisian said last week, after the corporation told him Cullen had resigned the $147,000-a-year post.

Cullen, who lives in Lincoln with her husband, Kevin, a teacher, said Tuesday, "I'm leaving voluntarily. There's no agenda behind the scenes. It's a personal decision."

With two daughters and a son between the ages of 8 and 4, Cullen said she simply decided she was missing too much working 65 hours a week on airport issues.

Her children "were very excited to hear that mommy's going to get a new job that gives me better hours," Cullen said.

The title of the lead person on airport planning has changed with the last three executives to fill the post, from director of planning and development, to deputy executive director of planning and development, to senior vice president for planning, engineering and the environment.

Cullen came to Green in May 2004 to replace Soderstrum, who was in the job from November 2001 to November 2003.

Soderstrum had replaced Wayne Schuster, who held the job for 4 1/2 years, starting in April 1997.

"Laurie has been more than willing to admit when she feels that some of the concerns of the city are correct," Avedisian said, "and all of a sudden she's gone and we start with a brand-new person again. Quite honestly, that's difficult for us. It's difficult to go through a process where the players on RIAC's side continually change."

In 2002, when the city was dealing with Soderstrum on airport expansion, "they pulled expansion plans off the table," Avedisian said. "They [decided to seek] small incremental changes that would stay within their fence line, which was a victory for us."

Not long afterward, he said, "Mary was gone."

With Cullen, he said, "We were getting close, once again, to realizing that there are some things we can agree on. Laurie was willing to do that at times. 'If you can give up on Y, we can give up on X, and we might be able to reach some consensus." "

Mark P. Brewer, president and CEO of the Airport Corporation, said yesterday, "It's unfortunate that [the city] will have to deal with someone new, but I can assure them there's no conspiracy or anything going on behind the scenes."

"It's certainly not the case" that planners are expected to defeat the city on airport expansion and serve only statewide interests, Brewer said.

Schuster and Soderstrum, he said, left to advance their careers and are "very happy" in their new jobs, Schuster at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and Soderstrum in aviation consulting.

When Cullen briefed the board two weeks ago, "she was reporting" on five expansion scenarios that the Federal Aviation Administration identified in an environmental study at Green, Brewer said.

"We could have had [the FAA's consultants on the study] come in and make the presentation," he said. "They would have made the exact same presentation."

"Laurie was absolutely right" when she said the state has to persuade the city to agree to further expansion, Brewer said.

"Four of the five alternatives show an impact on wetlands," he said, "and everyone knows that there is a concern that the City Council has veto power over any [state] permit that impacts wetlands within the city of Warwick."

Brewer praised Cullen and said her tenure, though brief, was an important one.

"I've known Laurie for 10 years and have nothing but the highest respect for her work ethic and what she brings to the table," he said. "That's why we hired her."

"She was putting in long hours, working weekends," he said. "She would go home, feed the kids, give them their baths and put them to bed, then work until the wee hours of the morning on RIAC work."

Cullen said, "It's my responsibility to find that balance and I never did. I don't blame anybody."

"I enjoy my work," she said. "Airports are very exciting, dynamic, diverse places to work, they really are." But at the same time, "my son went from 2 years old to 4 years old and I didn't see him."

"I want to get back to what's important to me, what has always been important to me, and that's my kids," she said.

Brewer said the corporation hopes to hire a new senior vice president before the end of June.

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