NEW HAVEN — A federal appeals court sided with the Tweed Airport Authority and the City of New Haven on Tuesday in a lawsuit against the state over the length of the airport’s runway.
If the ruling is not appealed to the state Supreme Court, Tweed will be allowed to seek federal approval to lengthen the main runway from a former limit of 5,600 feet to 7,200 feet. Officials said a longer runway would accommodate larger aircraft and boost the regional economy through job creation and development.
“Make no mistake, my administration is pleased with this decision,” Mayor Toni N. Harp said at a press conference at the airport Tuesday afternoon. “We hope today’s ruling signals the first step of a path toward improved air service to an estimated 1 million airline passengers in this market. We hope today’s ruling signals a first step on a path toward improved access to New Haven for all those who want to be here.”
Tweed currently runs commercial service to Philadelphia three times a day and to Charlotte on Saturdays.
A bill passed by the General Assembly in 2009 limits the length of the runway to 5,600 feet, but the court ruling Tuesday says the jurisdiction on runway length lies with the Federal Aviation Administration, not the state.
Harp said the ruling clearly lays out the challenges Tweed has faced with that runway limit.
“This airport has one of the shortest commercial runways in America, and the shortest runway in the market of 1 million air travelers. It’s overdue for improvement,” Harp said.
Guilford First Selectman Matthew Hoey, the interim director of Tweed, said the airport will immediately begin preparing its applications to the FAA and other regulatory agencies so they can be filed once the appeal window has closed. He said work to improve the runway could begin in about two years if progress is made soon.
“Obviously we are pleased with the court’s decision and greatly encouraged by what it means for the Greater New Haven area, the southern Connecticut region, and the State of Connecticut in general,” Hoey said. “This opportunity will help us get rid of the tag of being the fourth-most underserved airline travel market in the country.”
“The heart of this opportunity is that enhanced air service development goes hand in hand with economic development in Southern Connecticut, and it is a big step forward for job creation in the Greater New Haven area,” Hoey said.
Harp aide Laurence Grotheer said all work being considered by the city is entirely within the current airport boundaries. Nearby residents should not be worried about large-scale development on the airport grounds, he said, and runway work has been proposed to utilize the existing footprint in a way that maximizes the available space.
Gov. Ned Lamont said he thinks a “modest expansion of Tweed Airport, working closely with the neighbors is going to be a big part of Connecticut’s economic future, especially in that part of the state.”
Lamont said he would wait to see what Attorney General William Tong decides, but he’s inclined to advise him not to appeal.
Tong’s office said it is reviewing the decision and will determine whether it will file an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. It has 90 days to file a request.
Tweed is operated by its own staff and board of directors, but it is owned by the city of New Haven and straddles the New Haven/East Haven line. In the last year, officials have been discussing the possibility of having the airport operated by the Connecticut Airport Authority, which runs Bradley International Airport and other regional airports in the state.
Legislators and neighbors of the airport have repeatedly raised concerns about the level of noise and traffic Tweed causes. Officials said Tuesday that the city has facilitated more than $12 million in federal grants to address flooding and noise, including measures like installing new windows and central air conditioning in nearby homes.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said in statements Tuesday that they are calling for the state to appeal the ruling.
“Earlier this year Senator Fasano, Representative Paolillo, and I met with the Governor and his staff on the necessity for a community benefits plan for the neighborhoods around Tweed New Haven Airport if there were to be any expansion in the number of flights. The strong residential neighborhoods around Tweed must be protected from any damaging impact caused by the potential overruling of state law,” Looney said.
Fasano said the court ruling “does not change the fact that a contract still exists between Tweed, East Haven and New Haven. No federal law can invalidate that contract.” Restrictions on the runway length are still in place because of the contract, which New Haven itself negotiated and approved, he said.
“The city of New Haven and Tweed made a promise to the community. They signed off on an agreement that allowed for certain improvements to be made that benefited them. Then, once they got what they wanted, they stabbed the community in the back,” Fasano said. “They reneged on the very same pledge that they negotiated and approved. How can the community ever trust Tweed and the City of New Haven again?”
Harp bristled at the idea that Tweed has unfairly burdened the people who live near it.
“The airport was here before there was one house built, so no one built a house or bought a house without knowing that the airport was here,” Harp said.
She said New Haven officials will continue to pursue ways to limit speeds in the area, and will seek additional money to install noise-abatement improvements in homes that fall just outside the approved radius covered by federal funding.