Relations between Tweed New Haven Airport officials and engaged residents have seemingly improved under new airport leadership, but calls for environmental protections have persisted as the $70 million airport expansion looms.
At a Feb. 15 Airport Authority meeting, residents and board members thanked new Tweed Airport Executive Director Tom Rafter for his increased community outreach efforts and expertise in the ongoing environmental assessment process – but they also reminded him of requests from legislators, environmentalists and residents for a more rigorous analysis of the airport expansion.
Under a new lease with Avports – an airport operations and management company – Tweed Airport officials announced the construction of a new terminal on the East Haven side of the property and a runway extension on the New Haven side in May 2021.
Since the expansion announcement, residents have persuaded elected officials – like East Haven Mayor Joseph Carfora; state Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven; state Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford; state Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-East Haven; and state Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven — as well as environmental organizations, like Save the Sound and Friends of the Farm River Estuary, to request an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, to evaluate the impacts of air quality, noise levels, vehicular traffic, and more on the surrounding communities.
Following an explanation and update by Rafter on the ongoing Environmental Assessment, or EA, – an analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration on whether the expansion could cause significant environmental effects – at the February meeting, board member and East Haven resident Kenneth Dagliere thanked the director, but pointed to growing calls from the community for additional investigation.
“They have some legitimate concerns which I think we all appreciate, and I’m sure you’re hearing more and more people wondering and concerned that the EA is not enough,” Dagliere said.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, an Environmental Assessment includes a brief discussion of the environmental impacts of a federally-funded project and provides potential alternatives. Upon completion of the EA, the involved federal agency will either issue a Finding of No Significant Impact, known as a FONSI, or require an Environmental Impact Statement to further explore potential impacts.
Dagliere said he was one of the many requesting an Environmental Impact Statement, but explained that he and other residents did not have Rafter’s experience in environmental analyses.
“We’re counting on the FAA, the EA, yourself and others to make sure that every rock is unturned and everything is done properly and professionally,” Dagliere told Rafter.
On a phone call with CT Examiner, Rafter said he managed Nantucket Airport for 10 years and directed Atlantic City International Airport for 14 years, where he underwent an Environmental Impact Statement process in which the Federal Aviation Administration found adverse effects on noise, air and water pollution and worked to mitigate the impacts.
“There was a lot of work there,” Rafter said. “It was a huge difference compared to what is here.”
Rafter said that concerns from nearby residents were “somewhat typical” in an Environmental Assessment process as communications between the involved agencies were often private, leaving residents uninformed.
“It gets a little frustrating from their perspective, and I understand that because they want answers,” Rafter said. “When we get the approval to publish this draft EA, I think you will see a lot of answers in there.”
Public information meeting: tentatively in early April
Rafter said he was expecting a draft of the expansion’s Environmental Assessment to be published around the end of February, and said it would include information commonly requested by residents. He said anyone could submit comments and questions to the FAA both before and after the six-hour public information meeting – tentatively scheduled for early April – which would include various interactive stations on different environmental impacts, presentations and a Q&A session.
After the public commentary period, Rafter said, the FAA will take in all of the available information and make a determination. He acknowledged calls for an Environmental Impact Statement, but said that he would feel comfortable moving forward with the expansion without one if the FAA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI.
“It’s a very well-defined federal process that is used across the country – and not just airports, but highways and all types of modes of transportation,” Rafter said. “If they say it’s a FONSI, [then] it’s a FONSI, and we move forward.”
Still, Rafter said public participation was encouraged in the environmental analysis process. He said that he planned to service not only airport customers, but those in the surrounding communities.
In addition to emailing and calling residents, Rafter proposed the formation of the Community Information Committee, which was unanimously approved by the Airport Authority at the February meeting.
“It’s basically a vehicle to communicate with the public and provide them more information,” Rafter said of the committee.
Rafter said he was currently developing the details of the committee, including membership and meeting formats, but hoped to keep nearby residents updated on airport operations to avoid confusion.
“If they see something that looks potentially controversial, they already have an answer for what that may be,” Rafter explained.
Rafter said that directing an airport was “not the easiest job,” but said he would work to represent the public as best he could. During the public comment section of the meeting, numerous attendees expressed their appreciation for the new leadership.
“I would like to also welcome Mr. Rafter to his new position, and express some cautious optimism in what seems to already be an attempt to engage with the community in a more productive and – dare I say – responsible manner,” said New Haven resident Kathryn Gallicchio.
“This meeting has been run much differently than other meetings,” Branford resident Margaret Wheeler added. “You’ve been answering questions that we asked before, and that’s really important to all of us.”
In addition to thanking Rafter, residents also suggested ways to improve airport relations with nearby communities.
Lorena Venegas requested that Community Information Committee meetings be held in East Haven, as the town is a distressed municipality. According to state standards, East Haven currently ranks 19 out of the 25 identified environmental justice communities, meaning the town has high rates of unemployment and poverty, aging housing stock and low rates of growth in job creation, population, and per capita income.
“We’ve never had a public forum in East Haven,” Venegas said. “The only meetings that we’ve had are citizen-led.”
New Haven resident Lori Foster also urged the importance of communication.
“Communication is key right now, not only between the neighbors but also to the board of directors and members of Tweed,” said New Haven resident Lori Foster. “And I think by keeping these lines of communication open and sharing information, this could be a wonderful relationship between all.”