EAST HAVEN – A proposed expansion of Tweed New Haven Airport pitched as benefiting both East Haven and New Haven has deteriorated into rejected offers, claims of rushed deals and a standoff between the Tweed executive director and the Mayor of East Haven.
At a May 2021 news conference announcing the new terminal and runway, East Haven Mayor Joseph Carfora stood beside Tweed Executive Director Sean Scanlon as he highlighted the equitable split with New Haven.
“With this deal, these cities become closer in terms of partnerships, and more equitable partnerships,” Scanlon said.
But in May 2022, during his State of the Town Address, Carfora clawed back his support for the airport expansion, and questioned the equitability of the deal.
Since May, Carfora has made numerous public statements denouncing the expansion and recently called for an Environmental Impact Statement, known as an EIS, to evaluate impacts on wetlands, noise levels, vehicular traffic, threatened and endangered species, stormwater and air quality, especially given that East Haven is an environmental justice community.
In addition to Carfora, Save the Sound, Friend of the Farm River Estuary and State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, have also called for an EIS on the airport expansion.
Carfora said that the promise of more jobs and tax revenue drove his initial support for the project, but as the town looked further into the deal, numerous red flags appeared.
“The more that we continued to evaluate what impact moving a terminal and all its parking into the middle of wetlands, it became obvious – traffic, noise, impacts on our hurricane evacuation routes and on our historic town green and all of the events that we hold there,” he said.
Carfora said the economic benefits of the expansion also were not as they originally seemed.
He said that while East Haven currently collects about $150,000 in taxes from private buildings at Tweed, the town would lose out on about $2.5 million of taxes from the new terminal, based on a 2003 Connecticut Supreme Court decision that the terminal would be exempt from taxation from East Haven.
In call with CT Examiner on Tuesday, Michael Luzzi, an attorney for East Haven, hotly disputed that point.
“We absolutely dispute that this is not taxable,” said Luzzi. “We believe that Avports is a private entity that will be running and ostensibly at some point owning the terminal and therefore subject to municipal taxation. Tweed’s position is that they’re entitled to Tweed’s exemption because of a sponsorship claim. And we do not agree with that.”
And while New Haven’s PILOT funding – the money a town receives from the state in lieu of taxes on nontaxable property — increased by $49 million in 2021 after a vote by state legislature, Cafora said East Haven’s share had remained stagnant at $426,000.
Rejected offers and mistrust
Contacted by phone, Scanlon said that he and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker had worked hard to improve relations between Tweed, New Haven and East Haven, offering to split the community benefits package 50/50 between the municipalities.
Scanlon said Carfora rejected every offer they presented.
“A true partnership requires compromise and commitment on both sides in order to attain that, and unfortunately, we haven’t had that cooperation and commitment from them,” Scanlon said.
Conversations between the parties continued, but both Scanlon and Carfora agree that relations between the town and the airport worsened following a last offer to East Haven on June 13.
The two-page memorandum of agreement outlined designated parking lots, the shift from a 9-6 New Haven majority Tweed board to an 8-7 board, and details of a community benefits package, including $3.5 million from the developer and a potential $5 million for mitigation through the first five years of terminal operation.
But if signed by Carfora, East Haven would lose its land-use authority and zoning control over the Airport Master Plan.
“They wanted us to give up rights to local zoning and coastal area management standards – 2 pages for a $75-100 million dollar deal,” Carfora said. “It was insulting and too much.”
Carfora refused to sign the memorandum, and since then, Scanlon said, the two have had no productive discussions.
Luzzi said that the character of the communication changed in July when the town hired Pullman & Comley as special aviation counsel.
“I think that really started the ball rolling that there was going to be, at least, the appearance of an adversarial relationship,” Luzzi told CT Examiner.
A quick approval
On Aug. 10, John Stafstrom, an attorney with Pullman & Comley, asked Tweed for copies of the lease agreement between the airport and Avports, an operations and management company.
Four days later, on a Sunday, Tweed attorney Hugh Manke emailed the nearly 300-page document to East Haven counsel and Tweed board members.
Luzzi said East Haven counsel requested six weeks to review the agreement before moving forward, but Tweed Board Chairman John Picard called for a special meeting of the board the following morning, Aug. 15, to review the lease draft.
Carfora boycotted the meeting.
“You may be aware that the Town of East Haven made a formal request for this information early last week which, to date, has been inexplicably denied,” Carfora said in an emailed response to Picard. “Does it really need to be said that our town attorney receiving this information on a Sunday morning… is offensive and unprofessional?”
With a regular meeting of the Tweed New Haven Airport Authority board looming, Carfora questioned Tweed’s motives.
“My concern is that there is a move afoot to seek a full Authority vote Wednesday, August 17, 2022, on the agreement that you hope to discuss today in executive session,” Carfora continued. “… we object, and demand assurances that this operative document will not be brought to the Authority on such short notice, without the proper vetting for a ratification vote.”
Carfora’s concerns soon proved true, as the board approved the lease agreement on Aug. 17 by a 9 to 4 vote, officially setting the expansion in motion.
“I think what happened in August speaks for itself,” Luzzi told CT Examiner. “It’s not an acceptable way to do business with an equitable partner.”
But Scanlon said that given public information and private conversations, East Haven knew the details of the lease agreement long before it was sent to them on Aug. 14.
“We’ve been working on this publicly, at the very least, for a year and a half prior to that vote,” Scanlon said. “And the ultimate deal that we put before the board was, by and large, the same exact thing that was presented to Mayor Carfora back in January and February of 2021.”
Despite the board’s approval, Carfora and Luzzi still reviewed the documents and sent questions and concerns to Scanlon on Sept. 29, about seven weeks after receiving the lease agreement.
Of the 28 bullet points highlighted in their review, many questioned environmental mitigation costs, potential tax benefits, traffic burdens and the length of the lease itself.
At the end of the document, Luzzi requested a prompt response to the questions and reminded the Tweed Airport Authority of their legal obligations to East Haven.
“As you know, both federal law and the AIP Grant Assurances require consultation with the town, consistency with local plans, and fair consideration of the community’s interests,” Luzzi said. “The Authority has fallen far short of these legal obligations to date.”
Scanlon responded to the questions on Oct. 17, clarifying that construction of the terminal would boost PILOT payments and that any Department of Transportation mandated traffic mitigation would be at no cost to the town, among other details.
A continuing conflict
But Carfora was not satisfied.
In a letter sent the following day, he wrote that Scanlon’s responses failed to address public safety impacts on East Haven and any consideration of the burdens the town would be saddled with, including traffic, noise, pollution and “ecological strip-mining of our wetlands.”
“Let’s be crystal clear – at no time did you present to me, or anyone on my staff a proposal that was fair, acceptable, or that even minimally addressed the massive operational and financial requirements on our community that this Tweed expansion will impose,” Carfora said.
Carfora said East Haven would ensure that the expansion was appropriately vetted by all state and federal agencies, and emphasized that he was always available to discuss the matter.
But when Scanlon requested an in-person meeting with Carfora, Luzzi and East Haven town attorneys to continue the dialogue, as well as an invitation to discuss the project at Dec. 6 East Haven Town Council meeting, Carfora declined.
Instead Luzzi reminding Scanlon of an outstanding Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the expansion, lease agreement and Master Plan. Additional meetings without the requested information, Luzzi said, would not benefit anyone.
“We certainly agree that a collaborative and a transparent path is always best,” Luzzi said. “However, that can only occur when all stakeholders at the table have equal access to material and operative information.”
As for the request to meet with the Town Council, Luzzi reminded Scanlon that Carfora was the chief elected official authorized to negotiate with the Airport Authority.
At an Oct. 19 Tweed board meeting, Scanlon updated members on the pending Freedom of Information request. He said the volume of the inquiry would require help from an IT firm to retrieve the information.
“It is a very, very, very extensive and voluminous request,” Scanlon said at the meeting. “And obviously, I’m the only employee of the Authority… we are working on that request, but it is going to take some more time.”
Scanlon told CT Examiner that he was perplexed as to why Carfora would reject an in-person meeting in the meantime, especially after saying his community did not have enough information.
“We have nothing to hide, and are very confident and supportive,” said Scanlon. “I’m proud of the thing we’re trying to do for this community and the state, and it’s just disappointing that he doesn’t want to give us that opportunity.”
Scanlon and Carfora started their respective roles as executive director and mayor only a few weeks from one another in Oct. and Nov. of 2019 – but with Scanlon’s election as State Comptroller last week, their attempts to negotiate with each other will likely halt as Scanlon is expected to step down from his position at the airport. Tweed board members voted to hire an executive search firm in Oct. 2022 with the goal of finding Scanlon’s replacement by Jan. 2023.