Court backs Tweed expansion

In a decision that may settle a seven-year battle between transportation officials and East Haven neighborhood activists, a federal court ruled Friday that Tweed New Haven Regional Airport can continue with a safety improvement project that will require the airport property to extend further into East Haven.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall asserted that federal regulations eclipsed East Haven laws and mandated that community activists permanently desist from “taking any action which would have the effect of stopping, changing, interfering with, or delaying” the airport’s safety improvement project.

Though New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said this expansion will create jobs and tax revenue for the city, East Haven Mayor April Capone Almon maintains that the project infringes on the city’s jurisdiction, reducing quality of life for neighboring residents. She said she will decide in the next few days if East Haven will take further legal action to prevent the airport extension.

The safety improvement project, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, requires the extension of airport property 1,000 feet beyond each end of the runway in order to create a buffer zone between the runway and adjacent Dodge Avenue, in case a pilot overshoots or undershoots the runway. The extension of the safety area will allow heavier flights with more passengers and full cargo holds to land in the airport, Tweed attorney Hugh Manke said.

“To us, it’s a no-brainer,” DeStefano said. “This is a safety issue, not a cosmetic issue.”

The expansion of Tweed Airport will be “important to the infrastructure” of the area, especially for companies and organizations involved with Yale, said Bruce Alexander, vice president of New Haven and state affairs and campus development. A well-functioning regional airport would be a vital part of economic development in New Haven and the University, he said.

Though DeStefano said the strengthening of the airport will bring more economic opportunities to the city, Capone Almon said she was not convinced. Tweed has been on “life support” for the last 15 years, and the national financial crisis will not bring any success to the airline industry, she argued. In September, the FFA granted $400,000 to Tweed in order to pay for 95 percent of the airport’s legal fees. At that time, the airport was $235,000 in debt, Tweed Executive Director Tim Larson told the New Haven Board of Aldermen Finance Committee last month.

“With the state cutting back, the City of New Haven has laid people off and continued funding airports,” Capone Almon said, referring to the 34 city employees released by the city last September. “Does Hartford have a booming economy because of Bradley International Airport? Show me the proof of that.”

But, according to Capone Almon, ill-defined economic benefits do not outweigh the inconvenience and impositions placed upon East Haven residents living close to the airport. Connecticut statue protects East Haven and grants municipalities within the state the power to approve or reject expansion plans into city land, she said. In this case, airport authorities have ignored East Haven regulations at the expense of East Haven citizens and for the benefit of big business in New Haven, she said.

“The airport is using this argument of instrumentality to the state in order to circumvent all of our local processes,” Capone Almon said. “That’s what’s maddening — East Haven residents should have a say.”

Capone Almon said she has fielded complaints from residents around the area — even residents from New Haven, she said — who have objected to the noise and traffic caused by the airport.

To compensate for the inconvenience of nearby air traffic, DeStefano promised to provide a $500 tax credit to residents living within 1,500 feet of the airport, as well as noise attenuation systems for residents living within the high-noise zone.

Michael Criscuolo, one of those homeowners, is the head of the East Shore Conservation Association, a 40-year-old organization dedicated to fighting against airport expansion into East Haven. He said he and his neighbors are forced to withstand the constant sound of departing aircrafts, wafting jet fumes and the felling of trees to clear the airways for landing airplanes. The runway safety zone will eventually be paved over, Crisuolo asserted, and will become a longer runway to be used for larger, louder planes.

“If it wasn’t for Yale University wanting this airport,” he said, “I wouldn’t think that anybody would ever use it.”

Construction on the safety improvements at Tweed will begin in a few weeks and take approximately one year to complete, Manke said.

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