A pilot taxis an aircraft across the tarmac at Brainard Airport in Hartford.
A pilot taxis across the tarmac Thursday morning, July 21, 2016, at Brainard Airport in Hartford. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

The future of the Hartford-Brainard Airport was debated at length Tuesday during a meeting of the legislature’s tax-writing committee, which advanced a bill to spend $1.5 million on a study of whether the airport should be redeveloped. 

Lawmakers on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee eventually approved the bill, which would allow the Capital Region Development Authority to conduct an analysis of whether the 200-acre airfield in Hartford can be repurposed given environmental contamination on the land.

“We have 200 acres bordering the Connecticut River, adjoining a distressed municipality,” Rep. Stephen Meskers, D-Greenwich, said near the end of Tuesday’s debate. “We need a further and complete study about the potential economic development of 200 acres in such a strategic location.”

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Redevelopment of the South Meadows area has been a priority for Hartford city officials and the finance committee’s co-chairman, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, has been the bill’s chief proponent in the legislature.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Fonfara found himself defending the bill and arguing against a handful of amendments brought by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Opponents expressed concerns about which entity would conduct the study and whether the language of the bill effectively handicapped the airport. 

Fonfara said he was open to discussing changes, just not during the meeting. 

“Like any bill that one hopes to have become law, it’d be crazy not to consider recommendations,” Fonfara said. “I don’t think this is the place to do that.”

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, was one of several lawmakers to propose changes to the bill. All of them were eventually rejected by the committee. Cheeseman said the Capital Region Development Authority should not be the entity overseeing the study.

“The body that has a vested interest in repurposing a project should not be the one to pick the consultant. It’s too easy to pick a study, to set up the perimeters of the study, to create the outcome one wants,” Cheeseman said. 

Other lawmakers had concerns the bill did not explicitly require adequate environmental analysis or that the study was redundant, given that a legislative panel conducted its own study of the property in 2016 and concluded it should continue to operate as an airport. 

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, a Wallingford Democrat who was co-chair of the panel that conducted the earlier study, said the committee’s analysts concluded the airport benefits the city and the region in its current form. 

“The airport closure would be extremely difficult and likely costly and probably, couldn’t do anything until 2035,” Mushinsky said. “Redevelopment would demand large public subsidies.”

Mushinsky said a provision of the bill effectively forbids any investment in the airport, even after the study is completed. 

“That’s not simply a study. That is a shutdown — a shutdown of airport functions while the study is going on and after the study is turned in,” Mushinsky said. “That needs to be fixed. Otherwise this is not just a study bill. This is a shutdown of the airport.”

Proponents of the bill defeated an amendment to remove that language. However, Fonfara said the issue would be addressed at some point in the future. 

“Certainly not the intention of the language to encumber the airport. For safety reasons, during or after the study is completed,” Fonfara said. “That will be corrected going forward.”

The lengthy debate over the airport’s future also led to Cheeseman, one of the committee’s ranking Republican members, asking co-chairman Rep. Sean Scanlon whether he planned to recuse himself from the vote. Scanlon, a Democrat from Guilford, is also executive director of Tweed-New Haven Airport.

“You do, in fact, run another airport and I wondered if you view this as a conflict of interest,” Cheeseman asked.

Scanlon said he did not see the bill as a conflict of interest and cast a vote in its favor.