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Will climate change have something to say about the Tweed Airport expansion? Experts think so

Tweed New Haven Airport
Ebong Udoma

Just two days after the details of a master plan to expand Tweed New Haven airport were released in July, there was a harsh reminder that in a showdown between climate change and Tweed, climate change may well win.

Elsa, the first of three tropical systems this past summer that drenched the Connecticut shoreline, dumped a whole lot of water on Tweed.

The terminal flooded; the runways flooded; the access roads flooded; nearby homes flooded.

It nearly happened again when Henri came through and did happen again during Ida. And that was just one summer.

The problematic climate future Tweed faces actually is possible along just about all of New Haven’s shoreline. Parts of that shoreline – including the Long Wharf area — were once under water and may be destined for it again as the entire area faces increased battering from ever more-intense and frequent storms and the highest rates of sea level rise in the in the U.S. in the last 60 years, according to multiple studies, including data from NOAA.

But New Haven is moving ahead with new projects along Long Wharf and the east shore of the harbor, in addition to the airport, despite the climate risk, citing the need for economic development and city growth.

The city says it can handle growth and climate change at once. Science may say otherwise.

“I think in general we should have real reluctance to develop further in areas which are inherently vulnerable to flooding,” said Jim O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, CIRCA.

O’Donnell has been sounding the climate alarm for years, calculating that sea level rise in Long Island Sound could reach 20 inches by 2050 – a metric the state uses broadly for its resilience policies.

Best case scenarios show Tweed and the New Haven shoreline to be among Connecticut’s areas most vulnerable to the rising waters from climate change. Interactive mapping by the climate research group Climate Central paints a grim picture of what the future holds.

Even just the projected 20 inches of sea level rise, taking into account existing coastal protections, shows Tweed runways under water, in Climate Central’s map.

Add in factors such as moderate flooding and potential storm surge, and almost the entire airport is underwater by 2050, according to the group.

O’Donnell concedes, however, that development in flood zones, like the one where Tweed sits and the one along Long Wharf that extends inland through the New Haven rail yards to the train station, occurs all over the state. Shoreline properties with their views and waterfront access still command high property tax rates that cities and towns are loathe to forgo despite their vulnerability and repeated post-storm cleanup costs.

New Haven’s economic development administrator, Michael Piscitelli, is clear about the city’s priorities: “From an economic development perspective, we have learned over the years, in terms of moving forward on a global economic competitiveness of our city, that access to high quality and convenient air travel is very important both to people who are here now and people who are looking at our region.”

Piscitelli said everyone — from city officials to folks in the business community to those at Yale — agrees. “All point to the need for a much higher quality and more reliable level of scheduled air service in our region,” he said.

Worth noting is that the only commercial service so far in the initial expansion ramp-up is a startup discount airline, Avelo, with routes to Florida vacation destinations.

But the goal of more reliable service raises one obvious question: How reliable is an airport that finds itself — not infrequently — under water?

“No one on the city side or the airport side has any intention of looking away from that science. We’re working with an existing asset, investing in it to the point that we can make it resilient,” Piscitelli said. “The Elsa storm is a good indicator of what we need to plan for going forward — more intense rain events over short durations of time. It’s as equally a threat and a concern to our city as maybe some of the larger coastal storms.”

State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, who became executive director of the Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority a little over two years ago, agrees that resiliency, not retreat, is the goal.

“That was never an option,” Scanlon said. “Because why do anything in the state of Connecticut or even with the shoreline? We’re not just going to give up and walk away.”

Scanlon said precautions are being taken in the master plan to account for climate change impacts, but there are still questions about whether those precautions and the changes planned for Tweed are worth the cost, will accomplish the job, and last in the face of worsening sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

For some, the answer to those questions is no.

The Tweed landscape

Tweed has been around since 1931. It sits in the middle of a neighborhood, crammed along with tightly-packed modest homes onto a spit of what was once salt marsh and wetlands at the edge of Long Island Sound. It’s more or less a peninsula between New Haven Harbor and the Farm River mouth that separates East Haven and Branford. Tuttle Brook and Morris Creek run through it. Part is New Haven; part is East Haven.

The airport sits in the low point — basically a bowl — that collects water. It flows in from all directions — from the Sound during storms or due to sea level rise, and from rain – much of it inland runoff from the kind of intense storms Connecticut experienced last summer.

It’s almost impossible to get rid of both types of water at once.

There are tide gates not far from the southern-most shore. They predate the airport and were last replaced about a dozen years ago. When they’re open, the water from the massive kinds of runoff that occurred in Elsa and Ida can flow out into Long Island Sound. When they’re closed, they keep high water from the Sound from coming in. But that means runoff can’t get out, so inland floodwater will stay pooled at the airport and elsewhere. And if it’s a really big storm — with surges that overtop the gates – all bets are off.

“It is a challenging place to have an airport,” said Brian Thompson, director of land and water resources at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It’s not an ideal location.”

That has not gone unnoticed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has the final say on what can be built where. In a 2002 decision authorizing runway safety area and taxiway upgrades to bring them up to federal standards, the FAA noted that the required environmental impact statement showed the changes would result in “unavoidable adverse impact to coastal resources” that included tidal and freshwater wetlands.

Wetlands are the natural sponges that soak up excess water and often prevent or mitigate flooding. Many have been lost to development in and around Tweed.

The FAA went on to say that there were no practicable alternatives that avoided wetland impacts or encroaching on the floodplain. And it called the plan it was approving “the least environmentally damaging practical alternative.”

Opponents of Tweed’s expansion worry the new master plan could be another round of “least damaging” and that, short of turning the airport back to nature, there’s no way to prevent an environmental impact.

“Probably not,” said Chris Kelly, a legal fellow with the environmental advocacy group Save the Sound, when asked this question. “The answer to climate change isn’t always retreat. But smart planning also requires that you don’t just pave over all the land that you have.”

Paving more of Tweed or even changing what’s paved and what isn’t, he said, may mean more of the neighborhood could flood.

New Haven officials often say it’s better to have the water pooling on airport property instead of people’s homes and the streets around them.

“As soon as there’s any storm surge at high tide, no water is getting out of the neighborhood back into the water (of Long Island Sound),” Giovanni Zinn, New Haven’s city engineer told the Connecticut Mirror in 2019. “So water has to go somewhere. In this case it goes into the airport.”

But the water more and more is winding up in roads and homes too. Last summer, residents documented flooding not only on East Haven’s primary evacuation route – which is a regular occurrence – but also along roads closer to the airport that are likely to be access roads for the new terminal planned for the East Haven side.

In the past, East Haven mayors have fought the expansion of Tweed. But Mayor Joseph Carfora has been quoted as saying the concerns of his community have been addressed, and he was among the many local, state and federal politicians – including both U.S. senators, who consider themselves environmental champions – supporting the airport expansion plans when they were first announced in May.

Ray Baldwin, East Haven’s economic development director, noted that there are still many layers of approval – including some from East Haven – before any runway expansion or terminal relocation can proceed. “The mayor has always said right along this is not a done deal, by any means,” Baldwin said. He said the mayor has consistently said “whatever happens, he’s going to fight to get the best deal for the people of East Haven.”

Baldwin said flood mitigation is a key environmental concern for East Haven, just as it is for New Haven.

“Flooding, flooding, flooding, water streaming across the roads,” said Rachel Heerema, a key organizer of local opposition, who lives on the New Haven side. She moved there in 2012 and days later had to evacuate in advance of storm Sandy. “I’ve had water in my basement, the roads have flooded. I think not only is the issue that flooding happens, right in this area, it’s that we are definitely in climate disorder. It’s here and it’s now and it’s happening, and we are having tropical storms more than we did.”

Zinn, who lives just beyond the northern end of Tweed’s main runway, said what happened during last summer’s storms was a “validation of some of the hydrology.”

“The airport does act as a reservoir, if you will, for stormwater during these big storm and rain events,” he said.

But he admitted a few of the lowest spots of the neighborhood did have standing water until the tides went out. The best plan, he said, would be to use the airport to protect the surrounding neighborhood from stormwater and create resiliency. To that end, Zinn said, the city has asked the airport authority to increase the stormwater retention capability on the site a little. “Not a life-changing” amount, he said.

“Quite frankly, I’d much rather be flooding an airport than flooding people’s homes. One is a nuisance for a few hours for travelers. The other one is someone’s house.”

But climate change predictions point to conditions experienced last summer becoming even worse. And some fear the airport expansion plans may make it worse yet as areas that are now grassy are paved, roads are re-routed and the terminal is moved, possibly displacing existing wetlands.

The plan calls for a 2-to-1 replacement of wetlands that are destroyed. But the compounding effect of doing any or all of these on the existing ecosystem really isn’t known. Nor is how much excess water runways and other airport facilities can withstand before they degrade and become a danger or safety risk.

“Everyone is worried about climate change. Everyone is interested in us being more resilient, but we’re not going to give up our way of life simply because of something that’s happening. We have to adapt,” Scanlon said. “We will take a look at the issues that are affecting everybody, not just our airport, and figure out how they can be adapted.”

Plans and battles

Talk of expanding Tweed has gone on for years, if not decades, as commercial carriers and flights have come and gone in seemingly never-ending cycles. At times, only general aviation has operated there.

Neighbors have fought expansion throughout, most often citing a litany of longstanding concerns, many of them environmental: noise, pollution, traffic — the kinds of concerns that come up around any airport.

But in this latest skirmish, which has expanded to a wider circle of residents, flooding and climate are more of a focus. Opponents have coalesced under a new group – 10,000 Hawks, signifying the raptors that migrate over Tweed every fall. They are among a dozen on more species that could be at risk from changes to the area as documented less than a decade ago.

Some worry repeated floods will wash residue from chemicals used to control overgrowth near the runways as well as sewage overflow from storms onto their properties and elsewhere.

There’s concern that the wetlands and marsh – both salt and freshwater – are so diminished and overburdened by the repeated rounds of flooding that they will no longer be able to adequately do what they’re supposed to – soak up excess water.

“We all have access to the information on climate crisis. We all have access to the information on how to mitigate the damage. And we have government officials both at the state level and even federal, even Chris Murphy, who should know better, supporting this,” said Gabriela Campos, who lives on the New Haven side of Tweed. “It doesn’t just affect the immediate area. It affects the entire region.”

The expansion master plan anticipates a significant increase in commercial air service, extension of the runway at both ends and a larger four-to-six-gate terminal to be located on the East Haven side of the runway. The existing terminal has been on the New Haven side for decades.

The new plans for management and financing of Tweed are also very different from previous iterations.

Tweed is owned by the city of New Haven, which leases it to the airport authority, which in turn hires a private company to run it. That company is Avports, which has managed Tweed for a couple of decades. In 2018, Avports was acquired by West Street Infrastructure Partners III, an arm of Goldman Sachs.

But it may have been a move – or more accurately, a non-move — by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 that paved the way for the current situation. In choosing to not hear an appeal, the high court ended a 10-year dispute over whether the state had authority to limit the size of the runway at Tweed. The final answer was it doesn’t. And so an expansion master plan moved forward in earnest.

The financial changes switch the airport to a private funding model. In a couple of years, New Haven will be off the hook for the annual $325,000 operating subsidy it had been paying to the airport authority. It will no longer have to supply the match for federal grants. Avports will do that.

The airport expansion, anticipated to cost about $100 million, will be privately funded by Avports, as well as with funds from the FAA, already in use for the master plan and an environmental assessment, just getting underway. The FAA will likely pay for the runway component.

Because of the federal component, the project will need to comply with guidelines under the National Environmental Policy Act – NEPA. But because no state money is involved, a state flood management certificate will not be needed.

It’s not clear yet what state oversight will kick in, but officials at DEEP said most likely the state role will include water quality certification and issuing federal permits such as a stormwater permit for construction and an industrial stormwater permit, if needed.

The state will be able to comment throughout and look at other environmental impacts, such as on wildlife. And it will be able to ensure work is in compliance with state programs and mandates.

As for issues likely to come up, “Certainly flooding is going to be a biggie,” said Fred Riese, senior environmental analyst in DEEP’s Office of Environmental Review, who acknowledged the project is likely to face political pressures in addition to environmental ones.

Riese said the state would likely be looking at the change in what’s paved and what isn’t, what might happen to runoff and drainage rates as well as water quality as a result of any changes, and increases in storms and rainfall intensities.

The Airport Authority has recently named a project advisory committee that includes one resident each from New Haven and East Haven, New Haven’s Zinn, Baldwin from East Haven, O’Donnell of CIRCA, Kelly of Save the Sound and someone from the FAA.

As part of the overall expansion and 43-year lease approved by the New Haven Board of Alders in September, there will also be an environmental stewardship advisory committee consisting of three members each from New Haven and East Haven. The mayors have not made their selections yet. The lease is not final, but one component is that after it ends, New Haven takes back control of the airport. The current lease runs out in 2023.

“The idea that we can have a predictable [plan] — let’s look out 40 years and make a plan for a coastal floodplain — it’s really laughable,” Heerema said. “It’s like we’re going to make a plan on how climate disorder is going to impact this area. And while we’re making this plan, the plan is actually going to make it worse. Pave more. Pollute more. It’s doubling down on the problem.”

Kelly of Save the Sound said he couldn’t imagine a scenario where 43 years from now the city would be able to do anything with that land if officials are not planning carefully now for the expected climate change impacts.

“I’m trying to see the value of digging in where there isn’t a future, and I don’t see it,” he said.

CIRCA’s O’Donnell said: “It’s a complicated region, that’s for sure. Its existence is tied to the fact that it gets flooded on a regular basis, like all other salt marshes. So it’s just going to get flooded more frequently as sea level rises. And if you stop flooding in a marsh, the marsh dies, and so you can’t do that.”

If the marsh dies or is removed, it would mean there would be no natural means to moderate the effects of climate change, though O’Donnell points out there are limits to what can be done. A catastrophic hurricane, for example, can’t be protected against. “There’s basically nothing we can do about those in Connecticut.”

He and others have suggested that elevating the runways might be necessary at some point. But that would lessen, if not eliminate, the “bowl” function the airport provides now, and the surrounding neighborhood would certainly flood. He’s suggested better tide gates but also points out that as with elevating the runways, every mitigating action is likely to set off reactions that may be less desirable.

The rest of New Haven’s shoreline

As if dealing with the expansion of Tweed isn’t enough, New Haven is also facing a reckoning for its entire coast because of climate change.

The next battle seems to be plans for two large waterfront apartment buildings at the northern end of Long Wharf.

Elsa and the other storms this summer inundated the Long Wharf area. Union Avenue in front of the New Haven train station and police headquarters (at the intersection of the appropriately named Water Street) was impassable. That area, all the way out to the harbor, was once harbor itself – and is now low-lying fill that includes I-95 and the rail yards, both of which flood regularly.

The city and state have chosen to double-down on investment there anyway, infusing money into the rail facilities and the Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan, an updated version of a renewal and redevelopment plan first conceived of in the early 1980s. A small amount of what was originally envisioned has been built, though reconnecting the waterfront side of the highway and train tracks with the rest of the city has not.

Since then the area has flooded repeatedly. After Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, plans for so-called living shorelines were put in motion at Long Wharf and the East Shore Park in Morris Cove, which was also battered in both storms.

Living shorelines use natural-style constructions such as dunes, slopes and marsh grasses to temper the impact of water. But there are limits to what they can accomplish. New Haven’s theoretically will moderate wave action and in turn the erosion it causes. But they can’t temper sea level rise. And they are of no use for inland flooding runoff – and in fact can make things worse by not letting water out. In large violent storms, waves can easily over-top them.

“They’re not intended to do anything for that,” city engineer Zinn conceded. “We’re looking at really a layered approach in New Haven.”

He said one layer would be natural systems like the living shorelines and the hundreds of bioswales installed around the city to soak up a little excess water and prevent it from becoming runoff. New development would also be required for industrial scale runoff systems, including some way to hold excess water until it can be removed without flooding buildings and streets. The city is considering building new pipe under the railyards into the harbor to help get rid of flood waters.

Another component the city is counting on is its selection by the Army Corps of Engineers for a floodwall project along the highway at Long Wharf, and a large pump station. The concept and selection have been underway for a number of years. The Corps, which is also involved in the living shorelines, declined to discuss the project, only providing material already on its website.

Zinn expects work on the East Shore shoreline to begin in the first half of this year. The two together are expected to cost about $8 million.

While not a development issue, an item added to the city’s shoreline headaches are two federal lawsuits filed by the Conservation Law Foundation over some of the massive petroleum product tanks on the water at the port of New Haven.

Just two days before Elsa hit, CLF sued Gulf and Shell,contending they have not prepared properly for the flooding and extreme weather that is now more prevalent due to climate change. Gulf has 13 acres containing 16 tanks at or below sea level. Shell has 39 tanks on 38 acres.

Even a Category 1 hurricane could inundate the area and damage tanks filled with petroleum products, CLF alleges. CLF has filed similar suits in the Boston area and Rhode Island.

But already making figurative waves are the two apartment buildings – up to 500 units total – proposed by Fusco Development Corporation as part of the redevelopment of Long Wharf.

The site is a high-density flood zone in an area already prone to flooding — which means it will likely get even worse – that DEEP designated for water-dependent use under the Connecticut Coastal Management Act. That means something like a marina or ferry service.

But in November, the Board of Alders approved a zoning change to allow for the apartment buildings, inaccurately claiming DEEP had found the plan consistent with the CCMA. DEEP had not.

The department, in fact, filed a letter reiterating that the development district “is located within Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) special flood hazard zones. Sea level rise and other effects of climate change will increase the District’s coastal flood risk and associated damages, loss, and disruption.”

The letter further noted that “sea level rise will increase the probability of future flooding in the area” and that the Long Wharf area “has at least a 50% chance of flooding in any given year and local data from the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) at the University of Connecticut that predicts a 50% to 20% chance that some or all of the District will be flooded by storm surge and wave action in any given year.”

And it provided maps showing the risk.

“We raised concerns about coastal hazards putting residential development in an area that is vulnerable, prone to flooding and exposed to wave action,” said DEEP’s Thompson, whose signature is on the letter.

The alders ignored him. But the project faces a long regulatory road.

“They will come back to us with a site-specific coastal site plan review. So a more detailed plan for the development of the site,” Thompson said. “We review and comment on it. And their comments go back to the city, and they make the decision.”

But they could very well ignore DEEP then too.

The site faces the same kinds of forces as Tweed: saltwater incursion, freshwater runoff, wave action and sea level rise, all moving in different directions.

“It’s really a planning and engineering challenge to manage all that. I think the Long Wharf area is probably a really good example of where those forces meet,” Thompson said.

But because conditions are changing so dramatically and so quickly, planners can’t rely on old trends and patterns. New models need to be developed.

Thompson said he thinks the various factors can be addressed. “But,” he said, “I think there needs to be a lot of assessment and potentially some hard decisions on what to do.”

Dave Anderson, the lands campaign manager for Save the Sound, who has years of experience doing municipal planning on the Connecticut shoreline, also filed a letter with the Board of Alderman expressing concerns about the apartment buildings.

“DEEP actually does have the ability to take legal action if the local boards and commissions are not actually enforcing the provisions of the (Connecticut Coastal Management) Act,” he said. “I think probably DEEP needs to take the lead on identifying priority water-dependent use sites on the shoreline and have a stronger regulatory control of how those sites get developed.”

But on the matter of Long Wharf – as with Tweed – New Haven remains committed to the economic development necessity.

“The preservation focus of Long Wharf has to be front and center,” said Economic Development Administrator Piscitelli. “We have 5,000 jobs in this district. We have the Interstate 95 corridor, and we have the rail yard. And when you pull the lens back and you look at New England relative to the United States, it’s much more plainly evident how important this corridor is.”

“The absence of a strong resilient strategy here exposes this corridor and truly complicates the movement of goods, people, services to our entire region.”

But he pushes back against the often-raised distinction between protecting what’s already there and putting more infrastructure in harm’s way.

“I think it’s an overreach to say it’s putting people in harm’s way. There is a significant resiliency strategy associated with that development,” he said. “This is a very important moment for public governance to identify and then fund resilient strategies, where they’re most needed.”