NEW HAVEN – Growing tension between airport officials and Mayor Justin Elicker and nearby residents came to a head at the annual community meeting for Tweed Airport held on Wednesday night in the Nathan Hale School cafeteria.
Elicker first announced to attendees – residents of East Haven, New Haven and Branford – that they could speak with Tweed officials about airport operations, local environment, traffic and city services at separate tables around the room.
“Our goal tonight is to be able to talk with as many people as possible and answer everyone’s questions,” Elicker said.
Attendees loudly protested what they saw as a “divide and conquer” strategy, and many threatened to leave if Tweed officials would not agree to hold an open meeting.
As attendees yelled over one another, Gretl Gallicchio – a member of 10,000 Hawks, a neighborhood group opposing the proposed Tweed expansion – cupped her hands together and shouted, asking everyone to settle down and let her speak.
“You need to listen to us,” Gallicchio said to the city and airport officials. “And if you are unable or unwilling to listen to us now, reschedule this meeting with proper input from the community organizers on the agenda, the format and the time, and we will come back.”
Under the airport’s 43-year lease with the city of New Haven, Tweed officials are required to hold an annual community meeting, which must be open to the public and allow for public comment. Gallicchio asked Elicker and Tweed Executive Director Tom Rafter to hold the Wednesday meeting “the right way.”
“We’ll change the format,” Elicker responded, bending to allow for a single combined meeting.
For the next hour and a half, residents peppered Elicker and Rafter with questions about airport operations, increased traffic and the forthcoming results of a completed environmental assessment of the proposed expansion extending the runway and adding a new terminal and parking to the East Haven side of the airport.
The draft environmental assessment of the expansion, which was released in March, predicted little impact on the nearby residents or environment. But many officials and environmental groups, including East Haven Mayor Joseph Carfora and Save the Sound, have challenged the study.
One meeting attendee asked Elicker why he would not support an environmental impact statement – a more detailed study of the expansion’s impact.
“I was an early admirer of you because of your progressive politics and your environmentalism,” she said to the New Haven mayor. “…so I’m wondering how, in good conscience, could you not support an environmental impact statement?”
Elicker thanked her for the support, but said the decision of whether to complete a fuller environmental impact statement was not his to make.
“Whether it is an EIS or EA, it is an FAA decision. It is a technical decision,” Elicker said.
Many attendees living beside Tweed complained about existing conditions, describing a decreased quality of life due to late night flights, frequent airport traffic in residential neighborhoods and lacking air quality.
“1:30 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning,” said one attendee of late night landings, a frequent concern among neighbors. “It’s unacceptable. My house is built on granite – it vibrates, it wakes me up.”
Rafter, Tweed’s executive director, responded that after-hour flights accounted for just one percent of the total airport operations from Jan 1 until the end of May.
“There were 38 operations after hours. They don’t like to do them,” Rafter said. “…they are doing their best.”
Many in the crowd booed and questioned the data as Rafter explained that the airport could not control weather events. Elicker quickly grabbed the sole microphone from Rafter, requesting respect from attendees.
“I’m hearing boos and people shouting out,” Elicker said. “I understand that people might not like all the responses. Again, I ask people to be respectful. We’re doing our best.”
Another attendee asked the officials about the consequences for neighbors’ health, saying that she cannot breathe in her house with the windows closed.
“I want to know what’s going to happen with us,” she said. “I could be getting sick from your fumes.”
At its current location on the New Haven side of the airport, passengers flying in and out of Tweed must drive through residential neighborhoods to get to the terminal. Under the proposed expansion, the terminal would sit alongside a commercial park, near an “environmental justice” community in East Haven.
Rafter justified the proposed terminal relocation.
“This is an exact example of why the terminal is not compatible where it is today,” Rafter responded. “It is in people’s backyards.”
“So move it to the other side that has backyards right next to it,” one attendee shouted, seated at a cafeteria table.
Rafter said that if the terminal is moved to the East Haven side, the buffers between the terminal and residences would be “more significant.” But the crowd protested.
“Are you kidding me? Are you crazy?” one East Haven resident yelled. “Sir, have you been there? Come and stay at my house. I will cook for you.”
Elicker and Rafter continued to call on attendees raising their hands to speak, as members of the Tweed Airport Authority, the governing body of the airport, listened in on the impromptu Q&A session. Following the meeting, the officials stopped to talk to attendees, answering additional questions.