East Haven Officials, Activists Mull Federal Court Petition as FAA Clears Path for Airport Expansion

Tweed New Haven Airport (CT Examiner)

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EAST HAVEN — As the 60-day window to appeal an approved Tweed-New Haven Airport expansion shortens, town officials and local activists are considering a petition to federal court.

The move comes after the Federal Aviation Administration issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” decision for the planned airport expansion into East Haven on Dec. 22, meaning the project can move forward without further environmental study.

But as airport officials kick off the permitting process for the $165 million project, East Haven Mayor Joseph Carfora and 10,000 Hawks — a neighborhood group opposing the expansion — have called for an appeal.

“Nothing that was presented by this finding is fair, safe or equitable. It in no way addresses the host of issues that a project of this magnitude presents to our community,” Carfora said. “The FAA has presented us with no other option but to appeal this decision.”

When the expansion — which includes a new terminal, parking garage and surface parking in East Haven — was announced in 2021, Carfora stood beside Gov. Ned Lamont and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker in support of the plan. But Carfora later doubted the economic benefits for the town and publicly changed his position in 2022.

While the FAA has ruled that potential impacts on local air quality, flooding and traffic were not significant enough to warrant an environmental impact statement, opponents have pointed to a potential solution.

Under federal law, anyone who has a “substantial interest” in a decision made by the FAA can petition the United States Court of Appeals. Those petitions must be filed within 60 days of the decision — in this case, Feb. 20. 

Carfora did not clarify when he would file the petition. Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel for Save the Sound, an environmental organization opposing the federal decision, said on Tuesday that the group is still evaluating its options.

But Lorena Venegas, a resident activist and director of 10,000 Hawks, urged opponents to take action within the remaining 49 days. 

“I would encourage residents to work with local authorities, state and federal elected officials and nonprofit environmental justice and environmental organizations to follow the legal process to file an appeal and request a halt to the Record of Decision,” Venegas told CT Examiner.

Along with adding new facilities in East Haven, Tweed plans to extend its runway to allow for larger aircrafts. The FAA concluded in December that the expansion would improve Tweed’s impact, as larger planes mean a reduction in the total number of flights. 

Venegas, however, disagreed with that assumption and called for further review.

“Since the FONSI decision was released by the FAA, it has led to more local confusion about what to do about environmental impacts and costs to residents,” she said.

Prior to the FAA decision, Carfora said in April that the town had spent more than $250,000 of taxpayer money to hire aviation counsel to review the environmental assessment. He did not provide an updated figure ahead of the looming legal battle on Tuesday.

“The town has spent a significant amount of money on experts and legal representation [to] date,” he said.

As for Tweed, airport officials didn’t seem especially phased by potential federal court petitions.

Asked how an appeal could impact Tweed’s projected completion date of 2026, Tweed Executive Director Tom Rafter told CT Examiner he expects the project to continue as planned.

“Building a new Tweed-New Haven Airport is a multiyear process, and we have worked every step of the way with federal, state, and local partners to responsibly meet the needs of this region. This approach has allowed us to successfully move forward at each critical juncture, up to and including this most recent finding from the FAA,” Rafter said. “We are very confident the project will continue, to the benefit of local flyers and Connecticut’s local economy.”

FAA officials declined to say whether an appeal could halt work on the Tweed expansion.

On Tuesday, a representative for Avports — an airport management company funding the Tweed expansion — said the airport intends to start drafting designs and requesting permits alongside relevant state agencies.

The representative added that, along with abiding by Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Avports and Tweed would surpass federal requirements by constructing a carbon-neutral terminal. Asked if the airport would carry out additional environmental studies as requested by Carfora, Save the Sound and 10,000 Hawks, he reiterated Tweed’s promise to minimize fossil fuel operations under the expansion.