Connecticut Town Rethinks Lawsuit Against FAA

JANUARY 8, 2008

Greenwich, which once helped lead the fight against the Federal Aviation Administration's controversial aircraft rerouting plan, might be getting cold feet over a lawsuit it and several neighboring municipalities filed against the agency. Along with 10 other municipalities and the state itself, the town sued the FAA in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District of New York in early November over its new flight paths over Fairfield County, arguing that the agency failed to take residents' noise and other environmental concerns into account when developing the plan.

But a number of the committee's members, which has advised the Board of Selectmen on the matter, have raised concerns about the coalition's ability to win the legal battle and are issuing warnings about committing more taxpayer money to the effort."At this point in time, I personally have a number of reservations about continuing the lawsuit," said Erica Purnell, co-chairman of the Selectmen's Advisory Committee on Aircraft Noise.

So far, the town approved spending $64,100 on lawyers' and lobbying fees as part of the effort. That amount was reduced to $57,523 when three other municipalities joined the lawsuit. Another payment of $27,524 is due in February and is scheduled to be voted on by the Representative Town Meeting on Monday. A second payment of $23,439 would be due in July.

Purnell said the lawsuit has brought great attention to the cause from key federal and state officials, including President Bush and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who simultaneously filed his own lawsuit on behalf of the state against the FAA.

Connecticut was the first state to sue over the plan, which was adopted by the FAA in September after more than 100 public hearings on the routes, including one in Stamford on April 24. A number of town officials hope the prospect of protracted litigation will force the FAA to settle the matter.

One controversial aspect of the plan would shift arrivals for LaGuardia Airport eastward over Fairfield County from the current track over Westchester County. The plan also calls for planes departing Westchester County Airport to the north to turn back over Connecticut, abandoning the current route that takes them west over the Hudson River. The airport borders Greenwich to the northwest. The new routes are supposed to save 200,000 hours of delays per year at John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York, Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey and Philadelphia airports by 2011, according to the FAA.

The FAA has said the noise increases are not significant under government standards, but that there could be a noticeable difference for those not currently exposed to the noise.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said the town would honor its commitment to the coalition for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, and then review its position. "It's not an open-ended commitment," Tesei said. "Any future commitment would have to be determined after assessing where they stand with the case."

During his campaign for first selectman last fall, Tesei took flak from his Democratic opponent Frank Farricker for calling for the town to do a cost-benefit analysis before fully committing itself to the lawsuit. "Clearly, people know where my sentiments were prior to assuming office," Tesei said. "I don't believe we're the only municipality whose leaders and decision-makers are being cautious with our commitment."

Tesei said it was important for the town to be a good neighbor and to have a voice during the initial stages of the lawsuit and lobbying effort to ensure that the potential alternatives to the routes would not be detrimental to Greenwich. At the same time, he and other town officials have said that there isn't a complete consensus among the municipalities in the coalition, and that Greenwich's interests could be different from its neighbors.

According to FAA renderings of the new routes, the nearest holding pattern for Westchester County Airport is being moved to the east, appearing to spare Greenwich and Stamford but exposing New Canaan, Wilton and Weston to noise from planes circling overhead.

Democratic Selectman Lin Lavery said the town should stick with the coalition for the time being. "We should re-examine it as we go, but, right now, we've made a commitment, and we should stay with it," Lavery said. "I think it's extremely important that we have a seat at the table and that we support the other communities in this lawsuit. We have to be aware of what this is going to mean for our community."

Selectman Peter Crumbine, who has been serving as a liaison between the Board of Selectmen and the advisory committee, advocated a similar approach as Tesei. "I would expect the town to continue until the end of the fiscal year, and, at that time, we will assess the situation and see if we want to continue," Crumbine said.

Purnell, who lives near Westchester County Airport, said the town not only needs to think about its neighbors, but its residents. "We also have a commitment to the Greenwich taxpayers and to make sure we're being conscientious about the taxpayer money," Purnell said.

Source: Southern Connecticut Newspapers