Future of Municipal Suit Against FAA May Depend on Private Donations

NOVEMBER 24, 2008

As the economy crumbles, 13 towns fighting a plan to reroute more air traffic over Fairfield County must seek private donations to continue their lawsuit rather than tap taxpayers for money, a member said.

The Alliance for Sensible Airspace Planning launched a lawsuit last year against the Federal Aviation Administration and set aside $1 million to fight it. But, with the economic downturn, towns can't turn to hard-pressed taxpayers, said Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi, chairman of the executive committee of the alliance. "There's no doubt we're going to need to raise more money, but it's going to be very difficult to go back and ask for money," Marconi said.

Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei agreed. "I have no intention at this point in time in seeking any additional funding" from the town, Tesei said.

Stamford Economic Development Director Michael Freimuth said it's vital for the city to be part of the alliance because the rerouting plan would affect many residents. But it will be difficult to ask the city to cough up more money, Freimuth said. "The economy is challenging and it makes an impact on every decision," he said.

Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said legal bills could mount rapidly. "This was always a concern of mine from the beginning," said Moccia. "Lawyers get very expensive." Earlier this month, Moccia announced $1.8 million in budget cuts as the city grapples with declining revenue. Norwalk wouldn't be able to come up with more money for the legal fight if asked, Moccia has said.

When it formed, the alliance agreed that each municipality would pay an equal amount for the first 50 percent of the $1 million, and they would divide the balance proportionately based on population. Stamford's contribution to the fund was $166,177, Norwalk's share was $128,345, and Greenwich's portion was $135,198, Weston First Selectman Woody Bliss said.

The alliance also funds a lobbying and public relations campaign. Norwalk and Stamford do not have to pay their share of that effort because they have lobbyists in Washington, D.C. The alliance retained Steven Pflaum of Chicago, a senior partner with McDermott, Will & Emery LLP, to fight the case. The firm still represents the alliance and knows about the money limitations, Bliss said.

The alliance will ask private foundations and individuals to help pay for the legal battle, Marconi said. "We don't have to raise a lot of money from one person. A little bit of contribution from a lot of people can get us the money we need," he said.

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. It adopted the rerouting plan last year and could start implementing it in January. The alliance claims that noise will increase dramatically in much of southwestern Connecticut, quadrupling in places such as New Canaan, Wilton and Ridgefield, if the new routes are allowed.

In September the alliance received a blow when the federal Government Accountability Office said the FAA followed procedure in developing the flight plan.

The alliance's lawsuit, along with one from the state and others from the New York metropolitan area, are being consolidated into a single case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which usually handles litigation involving federal agencies such as the FAA. No date has been set for the case to be heard; it could be 18 months, Bliss said.

The alliance hasn't ruled out free legal services, he said. "Several law firms have told us they would work pro bono on the case. It's a national lawsuit, so it would help them" raise their profile, Bliss said. But that would be a last resort, he said. "You don't want to build a strategy on a pro bono" law firm, Bliss said.

Source: The Advocate