Tweed’s embattled expansion

Tweed’s embattled expansion

How the airport’s growth plan threatens residents and the environment
Published on November 6, 2023

When Lorena Venegas returned to her childhood hometown of East Haven in 2009, the Tweed New Haven Airport was hardly on her mind. While she was aware of the airport’s proximity to the town — she even flew out of Tweed a few times in the 1990s — she had ultimately chosen to settle down for the town’s access to nature.

That changed in 2019 after she began sitting in on the monthly airport authority board meetings. There, New Haven residents in attendance regularly complained about noise disturbances, air pollution and soot stains on their roofs. Their concerns piqued her interest.

“When you have somebody that’s describing that kind of pollution on their own property, then that’s impacting health and all living matter,” Venegas said. “My interest started in going to those meetings and learning as much as I can about the board.” 

Then, developments at the airport started coming closer to home. The pandemic hit, shutting down schools and sending families scrambling for support. At the same time, the airport authority released its environmental assessment for a taxiway and drainage improvement project in 2020. Too busy navigating their upended lives, the community members let the public comment period pass unnoticed. When she finally read the news of canal ditches dug along the East Haven side of the airport, Venegas reacted in disbelief. 

“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this happened and we weren’t able to have a public voice in it,’” she recalled.

Now, East Haven residents, facing Tweed’s latest — and largest — expansion plan, have mounted their fiercest opposition yet, including a push for a more comprehensive environmental impact report.  

In its 2021 updated master plan, the airport outlined intentions to extend its main runway and construct a new terminal. It also struck a partnership with Avelo Airlines, a Houston-based airline that pledged $60 million in hopes of opening the region to service routes from across the country.

The airport’s environmental assessment — a federally mandated report detailing the environmental impacts of Tweed’s expanded footprint — came out in March, followed by an extended public comment period that ended in May. The 206-page assessment concluded that the airport expansion project would present “limited environmental impacts” and now awaits the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval, which would set the stage for expansion.

But local organizations and residents are skeptical. In recent months, community members have challenged the report’s conclusions, pointing to the potential for significant wetland and wildlife damage, noise impacts and air pollution.

“[Tweed airport] is going to destroy a lot of lives,” Jean Edwards-Chieppo, East Haven resident and “Keep Tweed Small” organizer, said during an East Haven community gathering in September. “It’s going to be horrendous for this town.”

During the public comment period, community members have penned thousands of letters calling on the FAA to conduct an environmental impact statement, or EIS. 

If approved, the EIS would subject the airport to an additional multi-year process of ensuring that environmental regulations are met before construction begins. This would require federal agencies to take a closer look at the project — supplementing the earlier environmental assessment — and create additional opportunities for residents to voice their concerns.

“The [FAA’s] response has to be EIS,” Anthony Camposano, an East Haven resident now running for mayor on an anti-Tweed expansion platform, said. “I don’t see how it’s possible at all that they wouldn’t put through an EIS.”

Tweed’s development: boom and bust

Tweed’s proposed expansion is the result of a 2022 lease agreement between the city of New Haven and Avports, a Goldman Sachs-owned airport management company. Although the city officially owns the airport, Avports — which has operated Tweed for 24 years — will continue overseeing the airport’s development and invest $100 million into its expansion.

New Haven and Avports also cut a deal with Avelo, a budget airline company that promised nonstop flights, 100 crew members and three standing 737-700 Next Gen aircraft by the end of 2021, as well as $1.2 million in funding for improvements to the existing west terminal.

Although Tweed has its sights set on expansion, Kenneth Dagliere, East Haven’s newly appointed representative on the airport’s authority board, likens Tweed to a “postage stamp” — an airport mainly dedicated to small commuter aircraft and short connecting flights.

“[Tweed is] nestled in the middle of a neighborhood surrounded by residential homes, and sits right on the edge of environmental wetlands,” Dagliere said. “It’s never been built for this type of air traffic.”

Even so, Dagliere admitted that the airport has always been a “point of controversy” in the East Haven community, with talk of expansion stretching back decades.

The airport’s origins date back almost a century. Tweed opened in 1931, and American Airlines began operating its first passenger and air mail services in 1934. Eastern Airlines and Allegheny Airlines joined in the 1950s, flying to cities across the country. 

When East Haven raised legal challenges against Eastern and Allegheny in 1971 for causing a “public and private nuisance,” New Haven Airways — the city’s privately contracted airline operator — stepped in to continue operations. While still providing routes to New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, Tweed scaled back its number of destinations.

East Haven residents remember this as a time when air travel was manageable. Dagliere, who moved to East Haven in 1959, bought a house under the expectation that he would “[know] what the air traffic was going to be.” He explained that even at Tweed’s former heights, none of the operating airlines had brought in as much traffic as Avelo.

Air travel at Tweed briefly rebounded in the 1990s as the city welcomed Air Wisconsin, US Airways Express and United Express, which at one point offered nonstop flights to Chicago. Business, however, was difficult to sustain: by 1996, only US Airways Express remained in service.

Michael Piscitelli, New Haven’s economic development administrator, explained that Tweed has operated at a financial deficit for “many, many years.” As of 2021, the airport received $1.8 million in annual support from state and city subsidies.

That number has dropped to $1.05 million over the last year. In its annual audit, the airport authority credited the new lease agreement with easing some of the financial burden. Tweed’s 2022 general fund revenues increased by $3.1 million from the previous year, partly due to new air service and a “significant increase” in the number of travelers.

New Haven officials have touted the airport as a boon for business. According to Piscitelli, the airport would bolster the city’s significance as “a place for research, science and innovation” and unlock new economic potential. Coupled with the city’s network of passenger rail lines, Tweed could provide New Haven with a connection to “key markets” along the Eastern Seaboard.

Piscitelli projected that the expanded airport would provide 200 new on-site jobs in addition to short-term construction work. City administration has argued that it will also bring indirect benefits to the larger community through a growing hospitality industry. 

East Haven residents have not been as sanguine. For Venegas, the new lease agreement calls to mind the airport’s boom and bust cycle from the 1990s.

“We’ve wanted to make [Tweed] a hub for business, but it hasn’t turned out that way,” Venegas cautioned. “This is another experiment that we’re doing now.”

—Lorena Venegas

Since the turn of the century, Tweed has pressed on through fits and stumbles — attracting new airlines but often struggling to retain them. Delta subsidiary Comair started services in 2004 but announced plans to discontinue a year later due to cost concerns. In 2007, the Pan Am Clipper Connection — a Boston-Maine Airways commuter route with service to Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall Airport — lasted just five months in the face of sluggish demand.

For Avports, though, Tweed hasn’t lost its promise. Andrew King, spokesperson for Tweed, explained that the company took over Tweed’s management after noting New Haven’s 30 years of expensive and limited commercial passenger service. Its comprehensive study had identified the southern Connecticut region as “the second largest underserved market in the country.”

Demand has been high since the 2021 deal with Avelo. Avelo Airlines unveiled nonstop routes to Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach, Spartanburg and San Juan within the past year alone, adding to its existing flights, which include Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Baltimore and Chicago. The airport’s total 5,650 landings and takeoffs in 2022 exceeded even the master plan’s 2025 forecast.

Flights have increased, but the airport’s operational capacity has not, contributing to Avelo and Avports’ desire for expansion. 

Per FAA standards, Tweed’s current 5,600-foot runway is not long enough to accommodate Avelo’s fleet of Boeing 737-800s at their full capacity; due to payload weight restrictions, the 183-seat planes can only accept 162 passengers. Even the airline’s smaller lineup of 737-700s can only carry full loads when conditions are “good.” Avelo Flight Operations Vice President Andrew Lotter called for longer runways in a letter to Tweed, writing that “operating an airline at [Tweed] only in ‘good weather’ is not a sustainable business plan.”

A noisy, noxious neighbor — expansion could make matters worse

Tweed’s expansion has brought serious concerns about noise and health impacts.

Environmental advocates and community members expect the expansion to exacerbate air pollution in an already impacted area. New Haven’s ozone levels reached “severe” last fall. Its carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter concentrations exceeded National Ambient Air Quality Standards as recently as 1997 and 2012, respectively. 

“You have to think bigger when it’s public health,” Venegas said. “You have to think about children in those school systems that are around the airport.”

East Haven residents have enlisted the help of the academic community as they await the FAA’s decision on the expansion. 10,000 Hawks, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the town’s wetlands and shorelines, recently worked with Tufts University professor Neelakshi Hudda to survey the air quality around the airport. Hudda, whose lab researches urban air pollution, collected data in an electric Chevy outfitted with sensors and conducted measurements inside residents’ homes. 

“We found that it was no surprise that individual aircraft can emit huge amounts of air pollution when they are operational,” Hudda said. “That engine revs up, concentrations go up.”

Her team picked up a “significant amount” of aircraft pollution at homes just across the airport fence line, saying that there was “no confusion” about the cause.

Hudda’s lab screened their results with special attention to oxides of nitrogen but also ultrafine particles, a distinctive signature of fuel combustion that is not federally regulated and was not considered in the environmental assessment. 

East Haven residents have brought scientific help. The Hudda lab’s EV collected air quality measurements throughout the area earlier this year. (Courtesy of Neelakshi Hudda)

Residents are worried that the expansion will also exacerbate existing problems with noise pollution. Some properties already lie less than 600 feet away from the runway.

Resident complaints of unbearable noise have grown since Avelo started flying out of Tweed, especially when the aircraft circle around as they wait to land. Edwards-Chieppo recalled that sometimes planes “attempt to land five or six times, and then have to be diverted.” 

Dan Laudano, a lifelong East Haven resident who lives close to the airport, also reported experiencing extreme disturbance as the planes take off and land.

“Whenever the planes come by, I have to plug my ears, even if I’m in the house,”

—Dan Laudano

The assessment predicts that noise disturbance will impact a total of 54 homes. Its analysis found that sites such as the East Haven Adult Education School and Ms. Shaina’s Neighbor School would experience sound levels above the FAA’s acceptable day-night sound average level limits. 

King, the Tweed spokesperson, admitted that sound disturbance is a “real issue.” He explained that the FAA provides a program for mitigation if houses are within a calculated range, but that hasn’t always been a “perfect system.” A home that receives noise insulation might have a next-door neighbor who just happens to miss the coverage threshold, for instance. 

Avports has promised to step in with “block rounding noise mitigation.” Details of the “Residential Sound Insulation Program” have not yet been specified, but it would provide an additional $5 million to the community for select air conditioning or window replacement in homes left out from the FAA’s assessment.

Previous studies have linked noise pollution to an increased risk of heart attack and hypertension. The World Health Organization has also associated prolonged noise exposure above 45 decibels with impaired cognitive development.

All of these disturbances will take place in an area already environmentally impacted by facilities in addition to the airport. The assessment acknowledged that the project area experiences a “moderate to high environmental burden.”

According to Connecticut DEEP, Tweed is surrounded by multiple other “affecting facilities.” (Courtesy CT DEEP)

“This is near what could be the most overburdened environmental justice neighborhood in the state,” Roger Reynolds, the legal director of New Haven-based conservation nonprofit Save the Sound, said.

Reynolds noted the presence of oil terminals, Interstate 95, power plants and trash facilities surrounding the Annex, a New Haven neighborhood just a mile north of the airport. Connecticut DEEP’s website shows that the area is bordered by the East Shore sludge facility, PSEG power station, New Haven Harbor Station and oil storage facilities owned by Shell, Gulf Oil and Buckeye Partners. 

In 2022, East Haven came in 17th out of 169 municipalities on Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development Distressed Municipalities List, which ranks areas significantly impacted by poverty. This year, it came 25th. By the state’s definition, that would also make the town an environmental justice community.

In response to the assessment, the Conservation Law Fund proposed that the airport should install HEPA filters in schools, invest in water runoff filtration systems and fund neighborhood health centers to prevent asthma.

Surrounding wetlands under siege 

Beyond the noise and air pollution, Tweed’s ecological disturbance has been one of East Haveners’ foremost concerns over the past two years. 

Local residents, worried about the construction’s wetland impacts and health hazards, have routinely petitioned against the project since its announcement. Venegas’ 10,000 Hawks protested outside the East Haven town hall last year. Keep Tweed Small — a 599-member Facebook group — sprung up in August 2021 as residents from New Haven, East Haven and Branford banded together to share their grievances. 

Many residents stressed the importance of East Haven’s natural areas and identified the region’s low-lying coastal floodplains as crucial habitats for native, endangered wildlife.

The airport’s proposed expansion would involve the addition of a six-story parking garage, a relocated 80,000 square-foot “east terminal,” a 462,500 square-foot aircraft apron for overnight plane parking and a 639-foot extension of its current runway. 

The environmental assessment found “no critical habitats within the project site,” adding that construction would have neither “adverse impacts” on species of special preservation status nor contribute to habitat fragmentation. According to the document, construction would take place on already disturbed wetlands — most of which were filled in during the 1930s to become mowed grassland. 

Despite the assessment’s conclusion that expansion would not harm nearby habitats, local response has suggested otherwise. Save the Sound and the Conservation Law Foundation have both challenged the report’s findings, joining many residents in their push for an EIS.

 Reynolds explained that the airport could seriously affect East Haven’s wetlands. Noting Tweed’s proximity to the Morris Creek Nature Preserve — which sits half a mile from the runway’s southernmost end — he said that the construction’s environmental disturbance merited a more comprehensive review.

“The impacts really need to be studied thoroughly. And the draft environmental assessment is not that,”

—Roger Reynolds

Avports’ assessment process appears to have pared back the construction’s expected wetland footprint. In an email to the FAA in April 2022, Save the Sound anticipated that the project would disturb at least 29.5 total acres of wetlands. In the released report, the assessment anticipates construction to impact a total of 8.98 acres of wetland, 0.1 acres of which are undisturbed.

Save the Sound noted that the airport conducted a full EIS in 2002 for an extension of the runway, which impacted 9.89 acres of wetland.

Tweed’s surroundings also boast a reputation for avian diversity. The airport lies immediately north of Lighthouse Point Park, a designated “important bird area” by the Audubon Society. The park’s famed raptor migrations draw more than 5,000 annual bird sightings.

Residents have argued that, beyond wetland disturbance, incoming planes will likely interfere with these bird migrations. David Gersz, a lifelong East Haven resident and regular visitor of Lighthouse Point Park, was sitting in the park one afternoon when he noticed how close the descending planes had come to the migrating hawks.

“The plane comes right across coming in. And we got hawks and eagles, and all kinds of little birds flying around,” Gersz said.

While the assessment found “minimal temporary disturbance” on migrating avian species, it did acknowledge that the airport would potentially share the space with certain state-listed threatened and endangered species, including the horned lark, grasshopper sparrow and northern diamondback terrapin, among others. Two state-threatened plant species have also been documented on the site of the proposed east terminal development.

Tweed’s location in the heart of a flood-prone zone has not helped with planning efforts, either. Hugging Long Island Sound, the airport sits squarely within FEMA’s 100-year floodplain zone and is listed as “high risk” for future flooding.

Rainfall this year has offered a glimpse of what the future might hold: torrential rain this past July forced the airport to close for a day, canceling 15 flights due to severe flooding. Another rainstorm in August  brought two to three inches of water into the terminal, though the airport remained operational.

While New Haven recently added tide gates to nearby Morris Creek, precipitation at high tide could easily overwhelm the existing infrastructure. 

In anticipation of rising sea levels, the new terminal would be built on stilts and elevated eight feet above the current terminal’s height. According to King, the terminal’s underside would feature a “water collection system” to help manage flooding events. The assessment also announced plans to raise the current runway by three to six feet, which is above the state’s projected 20-inch sea level rise by 2050.

Flooding is common at the airport and the surrounding area, where water frequently accumulates after storms. Since this storm in October 2022, the airport has flooded 5 more times (Courtesy Lorena Venegas)

The environmental assessment assured “compensatory mitigation” for all wetland areas disturbed by the project but did not finalize where those sites would be. A 2022 meeting with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection identified eight parcels of land outside airport property for potential wetland restoration projects.

Avports’ plans for wetland remediation have been met with accusations of empty promises.

“What they’ve said is they’re going to either pay fees or participate in wetland restoration projects elsewhere outside the area, but they haven’t even said what those will be,” Reynolds, the Save the Sound legal director, said. “It’s impossible to know if the mitigation is sufficient or not.”

Tweed’s expansion plans come at a time when environmental activists are increasingly critical of air travel’s role in accelerating climate change. According to some estimates, the aviation industry accounts for 2.5 percent of global emissions and 5 percent of global warming.

Reynolds said that Save the Sound had been shocked by the assessment’s initial prediction that the expansion would lower emissions and improve air quality. According to the report, allowing the larger 737-800W planes to operate at Tweed would decrease the current number of flights taken by existing aircraft and thereby minimize its carbon footprint.

For Reynolds, that prediction runs counter to the model’s assumption of increased air travel, which appears to show an increase of 871,045 passengers over the next decade. 

“I don’t have an issue with [the calculations] one way or another,” Reynolds said. “But that belies common sense.”

An inter-town conflict

In addition to its environmental issues, the conflict at Tweed points to deeper municipal tensions over land use.  

Tweed Airport straddles East Haven and New Haven. The land is leased by New Haven, but construction of the new terminal would take place on the East Haven side. 

East Haven community members note that the proposed construction would impact their side of airport property, even though they don’t have the same decision-making representation as New Haven. Of the 15-member board that oversees the airport’s operations, the Connecticut state legislature grants eight representatives to New Haven, five to East Haven and two to the South Central Regional Council of Governments. 

“We really have no say legally in the expansion, which is horrific, because it’s affecting us,” Edwards-Chieppo, the Keep Tweed Small organizer, said.

In addition to concerns about board seats, East Haven would shoulder the airport’s operating burden. Dagliere explained that the new terminal and its resulting traffic would require an expansion of the town’s current police, firefighting, EMT and public works departments. All of this added infrastructure, he said, would be propped up by East Haven taxpayers.

In its comments on the environmental assessment, the Town of East Haven wrote that it would be “unlikely” to derive any noticeable economic benefit from the airport.

Early this September, East Haven residents gathered around the town green to hear Stacy Gravino and Anthony Camposano speak about their anti-airport platform for the coming election. 

“There is no benefit to East Haven,” Gravino, Republican candidate for town clerk, told the small crowd. “There is nothing that they can say that is going to benefit us.”

Gravino has pledged to try “everything that is in our power” to stop the expansion of the airport. Camposano, who is running as an independent, also hopes his mayoral candidacy can prevent the airport’s expansion by promoting increased dialogue within the community. 

Camposano’s two other mayoral opponents — incumbent Democrat Joseph Carfora and Republican Samantha Parlato — also recently expressed their opposition to the project.

East Haven residents at an informal gathering in September to hear Carfora and Gravino share their stances on the airport’s expansion

Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer

East Haven residents at an informal gathering in September to hear Carfora and Gravino share their stances on the airport’s expansion (Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer)

East Haven Mayor Carfora endorsed the project in its early stages, communicating his confidence that the plan would “benefit our community in a way that previous iterations would not have.” However, he suddenly reversed his position in 2022 during the lease’s formal approval stage, explaining that the ecological and economic impacts on the town were not what he had originally expected. Democrat state Sen. Christine Cohen has also opposed the project.

Carfora has also argued that the town would lose roughly $2.5 million in taxes from the new terminal. Under a 2003 Connecticut Supreme Court decision, Tweed’s terminal is exempt from East Haven taxation. Flare, an aviation consulting company hired by Avports, estimated that the project would raise $2 million in tax revenue for East Haven, although Venegas took issue with their methodology.

Carfora did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Despite Tweed’s promise of cheaper air travel and easier airport access, East Haven residents have pushed back by explaining that these benefits simply won’t apply to them.

“East Haven doesn’t have the money to get a plane ticket and go travel anywhere,” Camposano said. “Everyone’s living paycheck to paycheck. We can’t afford to vacation every month, once a year.”

Approval or environmental impact statement?

Since the public comment period closed last May, the FAA has been reviewing responses to the environmental assessment. The FAA has not committed a firm date for its decision, but its response to the project could come any day. Currently, the agency could accept the assessment with a “finding of no significant impact” — known as a FONSI — require certain additional mitigation measures or issue an EIS. 

The FAA must accept and defend the environmental assessment before the permitting and construction process can begin, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to King, the EIS does not collect additional data but formally shares it with other government agencies for input. 

King said that the Environmental Protection Agency informally reviewed the draft document and provided comments but did not request a formal review via an EIS. The authority and their contractors also solicited Connecticut DEEP and the Army Corps of Engineers throughout the drafting process.

“As far as we know, the FAA determined that the [environmental assessment] was still well within the FAA’s scope under the guidelines set forth by the EPA. The formal determination is forthcoming from the FAA, called a Finding of No Significant Impact and Record of Decision,” King said. 

Save the Sound does not have an official stance on airport expansion. Reynolds explained that some infrastructure developments cannot be avoided — which could be the case for Tweed — but that the organization would assess the document and “move appropriately” in the event of a FONSI. However, he said that the current environmental assessment is insufficient.

For East Haven activists, a FONSI would not be the end.

“I think the landscape is big, and the education is down low right now,” Venegas said. “We need to elevate, and we need to make sure that we motivate people that this is not the end of the road and that there’s different ways of addressing your issue.”

Venegas suggested that community members could propose increased sustainability measures to the airport, participate in airport zoning decisions and conduct public health research projects in the area.

For now, though, many residents are still waiting.

“We’re in limbo. And it’s just very frustrating,”

—Kenneth Dagliere

Tweed airport is named after John H. Tweed, who managed the site for 30 years.

Correction, Nov. 11: A previous version of this article included a comment that King did not make on the record. The article was also updated to correct seven errors in the transcription of King’s comments that are included in the article.

Correction, Feb. 14: The article was updated for a misspelling of Senator Christine Cohen’s name.

Update, Feb. 14: The article was updated to clarify that New Haven was identified as the “second-largest” market, not the largest.

Update, Feb. 14: The article was updated to clarify that New Haven had access to airports, but not cheap flights.


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