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Is climate change going to have an impact on Tweed Airport expansion plans? Experts believe so

Is climate change going to have an impact on Tweed Airport expansion plans? Experts believe so

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

Two days after the details of a Masterplan to expand Tweed New Haven airportTweed and climate change were reaffirmed in July when they were released.

Elsa, one of three tropical systems that hit Connecticut this summer, dumped a lot of water on Tweed.

The terminal was flooded; runways were flooded; access roads were flooded; homes nearby were flooded.

It almost happened again after Henri was born. It did happen again during Ida. 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 U.S.Multiple studies, including NOAA data, have shown that the rate of decline has been 60 percent in the past 60 years.  

New Haven is still moving ahead with projects along Long Wharf as well as the east shore, despite the climate risks, citing the need to economic development and city growth.

The city claims it can handle both climate change and growth simultaneously. Science might be able to prove 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. Climate Central has created interactive mapping that shows the grim future.

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.

Factors such as storm surge and moderate flooding can cause almost the entire airport to be 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. Despite their vulnerability, and repeated post-storm cleanup costs they face, shoreline properties still have high property tax rates.

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.

It is worth noting that the startup discount airline is the only commercial service in the initial expansion ramp up. Avelo, with routes from 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.”

Sean Scanlon (D-Guilford), who was elected state representative and became the executive director of Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority two years ago, believes that resilience is the goal, not retreat.

New Haven Independent

In May, Sean Scanlon, executive director of Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority, announced an expansion master plan for the airport as a who’s who of local, state and federal officials looked on.

“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 stated that precautions have been taken in the masterplan to account for climate changes impacts. However, there are still questions as to whether these precautions and the Tweed changes are worth the cost and will last in the face worsening sea levels rise and other climate-related impacts.

For some, the answer is no.

The Tweed landscape

Tweed has been around in some form since 1931. It is situated in the middle a neighborhood, with small homes packed together onto a patch of what was once salt marsh. It’s more or less a peninsula between New Haven Harbor and the Farm River mouth that separates East Haven and Branford. It is crossed by Morris Creek, Tuttle Brook, and Morris Creek. Part of it is New Haven; the other 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.

Not far from the southernmost shore are tide gates. They date back to the airport and were last updated about a decade 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.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has taken note of this and has final say on where to build. The Federal Aviation Administration has the final say on where and what can be built. 2002 decision authorizing runway safety zone 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 natural sponges that absorb excess water and help to prevent or mitigate flooding. Many have been lost to Tweed development.

The FAA continued by stating that there was no feasible alternative that would have avoided floodplain erosion or wetland impacts. 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 In 2019, the Connecticut Mirror published this statement. “So water has to go somewhere. In this case it goes into the airport.”

However, the water is accumulating in homes and roads more often. 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.

New Haven Independent

Giovanni Zinn, New Haven’s chief engineer. He lives near Tweed. He believes the airport should provide water detention to help keep at least some of the water out of the area during storms.

East Haven mayors opposed the expansion of Tweed in the past. 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 stated that flood mitigation is a major environmental concern in East Haven, just like it is in 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. She was forced to evacuate days later because of 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.

However, he acknowledged that there were some areas in the area that had standing water up until the tides receded. He suggested that the best solution would be to use the airport as a stormwater protection and resilience building. Zinn explained that the city had asked the airport authority for a slight increase in stormwater retention capabilities on the site. “Not a life-changing” amount, he said.

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

Climate change predictions suggest that conditions will worsen than last summer due to climate change. Some fear that the airport expansion plans could make things worse. Areas that are currently grassy will be paved and roads re-routed. The terminal will also be moved, potentially displacing existing wetlands.

The plan calls to replace wetlands that have been lost by 2-to-1. But the compounding effect of doing any or all of these on the existing ecosystem really isn’t known. We don’t know how much water runways and other airport facilities are capable of absorbing before they become unsafe or dangerous.

“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

Tweed expansion has been talked about for years, if it not decades, as commercial aircraft and flights have gone through seemingly never-ending cycles. There has been limited operation at times by general aviation.

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.

This latest skirmish has expanded to include a wider range of residents. Climate and flooding are now more prominent. Opponents have coalesced under a new group – 10,000 Hawks, signifying the raptors that migrate over Tweed every fall. They are one of a dozen species that could be affected by changes to the area. DocumentedIt was less than a decade earlier.

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.

Avports

Birds=eye rendering showing Tweed-New Haven Airport after the new master plan has been implemented. The runway would be extended and a brand new terminal would be built at a different location. Many are concerned that it could increase flooding in an already vulnerable area to flooding due climate change.

“We all have access to the information on climate crisis. We all have access the information about 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 masterplan anticipates a significant rise in commercial air service, the extension of both runway ends, and the construction of a larger four-to six-gate terminal to be found on the East Haven side. The New Haven side has had the terminal for decades.

The new plans for Tweed’s management and financing are very different from the previous iterations.

Tweed is owned and leased by New Haven. The airport authority then hires a private company for its management. Avports has been managing Tweed for several decades. Avports, a Goldman Sachs arm, was acquired by West Street Infrastructure Partners III in 2018.

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. The high court ruled that appeals would not be heard. This was the end of a 10-year-old dispute about whether the state had the authority to limit Tweed’s runway. The final answer was it doesn’t. So, an expansion master plan was initiated.

The financial changes have made it possible for the airport to transition to a private funding model. New Haven will no more be responsible for the $325,000 annual operating subsidy it has been paying to the airport authority. It will no more have to match federal grants. Avports will take care of that.

Avports will finance the airport expansion at a cost of about $100 million. Funds from the FAA are also available for the master plan and environmental assessment. The runway component will likely be paid for by the FAA.

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

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 have the ability to comment on all aspects of the process and also examine other environmental impacts such as wildlife. It will also be able ensure that work is compliant with state mandates and programs.

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.

The New Haven Board of Alders approved a 43-year lease and expansion in September. It will also include a committee for environmental stewardship. It will consist of three members from each New Haven and East Haven. The mayors have yet to make their selections. Although the lease is not finalized, one component of it is that New Haven will take back control of the airport after it ends. The current lease expires in 2023.

Tweed New Haven Regional Airport

Avelo, a low-cost startup airline, has started service from New Haven to Florida vacation destinations.

“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 with the fact that it is regularly flooded, just like 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.”

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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 the runways could be elevated 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 appears to be for plans for two large waterfront apartment blocks at the northern end Long Wharf.

Elsa and other storms this summer inundated Long Wharf. Union Avenue, just in front of New Haven’s train station and police headquarters (at Water Street’s intersection), 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 yardsBoth of these flood frequently.

The state and city have decided to double down on investments in rail infrastructure. They also infuse money into the Long Wharf Responsible Growth Plan. This is an updated version of a renewal plan and redevelopment plan that was first proposed in the 1980s. While a small amount of what was originally intended has been completed, the reconnecting of the waterfront and train tracks with other parts of the city has not.

Since then, the area has been repeatedly flooded. After Sandy and Irene, the area has been repeatedly flooded in 2011-2012. Plans for so-called living shorelinesThey were activated at Long Wharf as well as the East Shore Park in Morris Cove. This park was also battered in both storms.

Living shorelines use natural-style structures such as slopes, dunes and marshgrasses to reduce the impact on water. They can only do so much. 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. Waves can easily overwhelm them in large, violent storms.

Fusco Development Corporation

Renderings for two residential buildings in Long Wharf. DEEP believes the site should be used only for water-dependent purposes.

“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 that the natural systems, such as the living shorelines and the hundreds upon hundreds of bioswales, would form one layer. They will absorb some excess water and prevent it forming runoff. A new development is required to develop industrial scale runoff systems. This includes a way for excess water to be held until it can be removed from buildings and streets without flooding. The city is currently looking into building new pipes beneath the railyards that run into the harbor to drain flood waters.

Another component the city relies on is the Army Corps of Engineers selection for a floodwall and pump station project along Long Wharf’s highway. The selection process and concept have been in place for many years. The Corps, which is also involved with the living shorelines project, declined to discuss it, but only provided material on its website.

Zinn expects that work on East Shore shoreline will start in the first quarter of this year. Both projects are expected to cost around $8 million each.

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.

CLF sued two days prior to Elsa’s arrival GulfAnd Shell, They claim that they haven’t prepared for extreme weather and flooding, which is becoming more common as a result of climate change. Gulf has 13 acres with 16 tanks below sea level on 16 acres. Shell has 39 tanks spread over 38 acres.

CLF claims that even a Category 1 hurricane could flood the area and cause damage to petroleum products tanks. CLF has filed similar suits against the Boston area as well as 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. This could refer to a marina or ferry company.

However, November will bring the Board of Alders approved the zoning changeDEEP incorrectly claimed that DEEP had approved the apartment buildings and that the plan was compatible with the CCMA. DEEP had not.

In fact, the department 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.”

New Haven Independent

Michael Piscitelli, New Haven’s economic development administrator, believes shoreline development at Tweed and Long Wharf is vital to the city’s growth, even though both areas face risks from climate change.

It also 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.

He was ignored by the aldermen. The project still faces long regulatory hurdles.

“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 ignore DEEP too.

The site is facing the same forces that Tweed faces: saltwater intrusion, freshwater runoff wave action and sea-level rise.

“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 are needed.

Thompson stated that he believes that 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, Save the Sound’s Lands Campaign Manager, has extensive experience in planning municipal projects along the Connecticut shoreline. Also, a letter was filed with the Board of AldermanConcerns expressed about 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. We also 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.”

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