Rendering of expanded Tweed airport. AVPORTS IMAGE

A planned expansion of Tweed New Haven took a big step forward Wednesday, as the Morris Cove airport’s board members voted to approve a new 43-year lease and development agreement with a private company that plans to invest $100 million in extending the runway and building a new, larger terminal on the East Haven side of the property.

That vote came as East Haven officials ramped up opposition to the expansion plans — with every town-appointed board member voting against the lease agreement, and the town’s mayor threatening a lawsuit, and even a ​“street fight” if necessary, in order to stop this project from moving ahead.

That was the outcome of Wednesday night’s Tweed New Haven Airport Authority Board of Directors meeting, which took place online via Zoom.

The board members ultimately voted 9 to four in support of a new lease and development agreement between the airport authority and The New HVN LLC, which is a subsidiary of the Goldman Sachs-owned airport management company Avports.

All of the East Haven town government-appointed board members voted against the deal on the grounds that they hadn’t had enough time to digest the 660-page agenda packet that they received earlier in the week.

And during the hourlong public testimony section at the start of the meeting, nearly 20 East Haven and Morris Cove residents — including East Haven Mayor Joseph Carfora — objected to the expansion plans. They criticized the board’s process and warned of a host of environmental harms to come from a larger and busier airport. 

How much power East Haven town government may have to stop Tweed’s quickly accelerating expansion plans remains unclear. 

Carfora hinted during his public comments to the board on Wednesday that East Haven government may file a lawsuit against the airport, though he did not say on what grounds. He also said that ​“East Haven is not afraid of a street fight. It never has been,” though, again, he did not explain exactly what such a fight would entail. 

After the meeting, Airport Authority Executive Director Sean Scanlon confirmed that Tweed will likely need some approvals from East Haven government boards and agencies in order to make this expansion plan a reality — particularly in regards to the construction of the new terminal planned for the East Haven side of the property.

“We’re not exactly sure how comprehensive a list of approvals there need to be,” Scanlon told the Independent. ​“It’s one of the reasons that we want to work collaboratively with East Haven. We do believe that there will have to be some approvals.”

Airport director Sean Scanlon at May 2021 press conference. Thomas Breen photo

Nevertheless, the so-called ​“facility agreement” between Avports and the airport authority passed on Wednesday, marking a major milestone for a privately funded expansion of the airport that local and state officials and Tweed boosters first unveiled in May 2021 – and that advocates for a larger airport have been pushing for for decades.

The newly approved Avports-airport authority deal details how and when the small regional airport plans to grow its footprint: It will construct a new four-to-six-gate terminal on the East Haven side of the property and lengthen the airport’s runway from 5,600 feet to 6,635 to try to attract new passenger air service. 

It also requires Avports to invest $5 million in noise, traffic, and environmental mitigation efforts for the surrounding New Haven and East Haven residential neighborhoods. It establishes a new $550,000 base rent and additional gross revenue-based rent that Avports must pay the airport authority each year in exchange for running the airport and overseeing its expansion. And it eliminates longstanding state and local government subsidies that have for years kept Tweed financially afloat.

According to an email press release sent out by Tweed New Haven Airport Authority Executive Director Sean Scanlon after Wednesday’s vote, this newly approved agreement ​“establishes that Avports will invest no less than $100 million to cover the cost of these improvements as well as ongoing operations at the airport, managing the airfield on behalf of the Authority for a period of 43 years.”

That’s a significant bump above the $70 million price tag that airport and elected officials estimated Tweed’s expansion would cost during the initial May 2021 presser. 

(Read the new 384-page lease and development deal in full here.)

“This is simply just another step towards this [expansion] happening, towards us building this project and giving people the air service that I truly believe they want in this region,” Scanlon said. ​“There are many steps left to go.”

He said the airport is still working on its environmental assessment of the project. And he said that the airport will likely need some additional local government approvals from both East Haven and New Haven before all of the expansion plans can be completed. 

But, Scanlon emphasized, ​“this project is really, really important. What we did tonight is very crucial towards getting this thing that many of us and many people have wanted for decades.”

Boarding an Avelo flight from Tweed in February. Thomas Breen photo

Wednesday night’s approval of the new 43-year Avports-airport authority agreement came roughly 11 months after the Board of Alders unanimously approved a parallel 43-year lease agreement between the City of New Haven and the airport authority. The airport authority board voted 9 to 4 on Wednesday night to approve that latter agreement, as well.

The vote also came as commercial air service out of Tweed has increased dramatically since November 2021, after the new budget airline Avelo made New Haven its​“East Coast” hub and is currently running nonstop flights to 14 different communities, including Orlando, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Savannah, Charleston, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Raleigh.

“We are excited to enter into this new agreement with Tweed and our partners in local government,” Avports CEO Jorge Roberts is quoted as saying in Wednesday evening’s celebratory email press release from the airport authority. ​“This lease agreement provides a first of its kind flexibility to airport municipalities. We recognize our responsibility to ensure a sustainable airport and to expand upon Avports’ track record as a leader in environmental, social, and governance principles.”

Mayor Justin Elicker was similarly enthusiastic. ​“Today’s announcement is one more important step forward towards ensuring long-term stability at Tweed Airport that will grow our local economy, provide high-quality travel options for residents, good-paying jobs for families, and address critical noise, traffic, safety and financial concerns as well,” he’s quoted as saying in that same press release. He described the lease and development agreement approval as a ​“meaningful milestone towards responsible growth and a long-term partnership” at Tweed.

East Haven mayor: “All avenues will be taken”

Not everyone was gung ho about the Avports-airport authority deal in particular — or about Tweed’s expansion plans more broadly — during Wednesday night’s board meeting.

The meeting opened with an hour of public testimony, nearly all of which was opposed to the expansion.

“I want to be clear to my constituents that I am against the expansion of this airport to the East Haven side,” Mayor Carfora said during his opening remarks. ​“This agreement is being rushed.”

He said that East Haven will suffer from ​“all the traffic, transient population, parking headaches, ecological strip-mining, and pollution” that will come from a larger and relocated airport, while New Haven will get ​“most of the economic benefits, serving at the behest of Yale and Goldman Sachs.”

He said that East Haven town government has hired ​“specialized counsel and aviation counsel,” that it has sent the airport authority directors a ​“litigation hold letter,” and that ​“all avenues will be taken to protect our community.”

More than a dozen East Haven, Morris Cove, and Branford residents — many of whom have been active for months in the fight to stop Tweed’s expansion — were equally critical of the expansion plans and the Avports deal.

“We have outlined our environmental injustice,” East Haven resident Lorena Vanegas said, referring to ​“flooding concerns” and ​“wildlife concerns” she has about a larger airport.

“This is a severe tragedy happening in a boy’s club,” she said, referring to how only two of the 13 voting members on the airport authority board Wednesday night were women.

“I am just appalled at the behavior of the board, Tweed, and the town of New Haven,” said East Haven resident Jean Edwards-Chieppo. ​“The way they treat the residents, it’s as if we do not matter. We do not exist.” She implored the board members to ​“find your conscience. It’s absolutely diabolical. A few people will make millions or trillions from this, while we will all suffer.”

Morris Cove resident Lisa Bassani stressed that the people who came out to speak against the expansion plans at Wednesday’s reside in the immediate surrounding area of the airport.

“We live here,” she said. ​“We breathe the fumes. We hear the noise. We’re woken up in the middle of the night.”

As Avelo has increased its flights out of Tweed in recent months, she said, ​“we’ve seen the traffic grow exponentially. The noise is incredibly loud for those of us who live here.”

“Nobody would like to be in my shoes living right under the flight path,” said East Haven resident Lianne Audette, describing the expansion plans as inflicting ​“irreparable speculative damage” on the area.

Fair Haven Heights resident Patricia Kane told the board members that it’s not just Morris Cove and East Haven residents who have borne the environmental brunt of a busier airport. Heights and Fair Haven residents have also been impacted and will continue to be impacted by more and more frequent flights. 

“I think what the quarrel is is whose needs are being met by this increased flight traffic,” Kane said. ​“I don’t sense it’s coming from the residents. I sense it’s coming from big interests like Yale, the hospital, biosciences, and the Chamber of Commerce.”

A few people who spoke up during the public hearing portion of the meeting did throw their support behind a larger Tweed. They did so largely on the grounds that more flights and a bigger airport will better connect the New Haven region to the rest of the country, and will thereby make the area a more attractive place to do business.

“On behalf of the business community, we ask that you support this lease agreement” with Avports, said Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Garrett Sheehan. He praised Avelo for its ​“great success in our region so far,” and described the Avports-airport authority deal is one that will continue the ​“controlled growth of the airport.”

East Haven resident and REX Development project manager Barbara Malmberg said that a larger Tweed will mean more jobs and more customers for local hotels, retailers, and restaurants.

And New Haven parking authority director Doug Hausladen heralded the growth of air service at Tweed as ​“special in this era when we’re seeing expansive growth in our residential sectors, as well as our biotech and the university sectors.” 

“I’m terribly excited to see a larger terminal in East Haven to handle this growth,” he said.

Deals OK’d, with East Haven protest votes

After the public testimony section of the meeting wrapped up, the airport authority board members — under the direction of Board Chair John Picard — worked their way through over half a dozen different voting items on the agenda, including the Avports-authority facility agreement deal and the city-authority lease.

With the airport expansion backers comfortably outnumbering the expansion critics on the board, each resolution passed with either a 9‑to‑4 or a 9‑to‑3 vote margin, depending on how many people were on the call and not Zoom-frozen at any given time.

Nevertheless, the four East Haven town government-appointed members of the board voiced their objections. They put up a largely symbolic effort to stop the expansion plan from moving forward by moving to table each resolution up for a vote Wednesday night, regardless of whether or not that resolution related to the lease agreements.

“After listening to the public, my heart breaks,” East Haven-appointed board member Kenneth Dagliere said when explaining at the top of the voting portion of the meeting why he’d be opposing every item on the agenda. ​“Because this is Samson v. Goliath [sic.] This is finance vs. quality of life. Our fingers should be on the scale of quality of life for the people that we serve. At this point, I don’t know if it is.”

Fellow East Haven-appointed board member Ray Pompano agreed. ​“If we’re not looking to break ground until March of ​’23,” he said about the runway extension and new terminal plans, ​“why does this lease, why are we steamrolling ahead?”

“I too feel like East Haven hasn’t had a fighting chance to see what’s good for us,” said fellow board member Linda Hennessey. She called for the board to delay its vote on the Avports deal for a month so that the board members could take a deeper diver on the lengthy and complicated agreement.

Morris Cove resident, Southern Connecticut State University President, and airport authority board member Joe Bertolino asked Scanlon to respond to some of the board member and public testimony concerns about the timeline around the facility agreement review and vote.

“I stood out front of the airport in May of 2021 with Mayor Elicker, Mayor Carfora, and Jorge Roberts to announce the deal that is before you tonight,” Scanlon said. He said that, at that time in May 2021, all of those individuals — Carfora included — supported this plan.

“Since that time in May of 2021, we have engaged in nonstop communication with the Town of East Haven, with the City of New Haven, with residents that live” in the surrounding neighborhoods, he continued. He praised Carfora as someone ​“I work really well with. I think he’s done a great job as mayor of East Haven.”

Scanlon promised to continue working with Carfora and airport neighbors to ​“work through some of the issues” raised during Wednesday’s meeting.

“While I do hear from some of the members of the public and on this board that this is being rushed,” Scanlon said, ​“I would just remind the board and the public that what we’re talking about tonight is just the same as what we spoke about in May 2021.”

With that, the board members then worked through the votes.

Board members Dagliere, Pampano, Hennessey, and fellow East Havener Kevin Coyle voted against every item on the agenda Wednesday night, including the Avports deal (except Hennessey and Pampano abstained from voting on the airport’s annual budget).

Board members Picard, Bertolino, Matthew Hoey, Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, Vin Petrini, Carlos Ezyaguirre, Mark Sklarz, Rich Jacob and Robert Ellis voted in support of every item on the agenda.