June 21, 2017

By Thomas Friestad

Lower Makefield has amped up its involvement in an ongoing skirmish between the Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing, New Jersey, and Bucks County residents across the river.

The supervisors hired a lawyer — Barbara Lichman of Buchalter Law Firm, who has a history in representing municipalities in airport-related litigation — at a recent meeting to help the supervisors determine how they should proceed in dealing with the airport. The township will pay Lichman $35,000 to $45,000.

Lichman already has contacted airport officials, writing to airport senior project manager Dale Russell that plans to expand airport operations would affect the “health, safety and welfare” of Lower Makefield residents, who she said have been “already severely impacted.”

Lichman also wrote that Trenton-Mercer must iron out an environmental impact study — this would tell how the development could affect noise or nearby property values in addition to pollution — before it submits its plan to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Trenton-Mercer’s plan, which is several hundred pages long, includes improvements to taxiways and a new four-gate terminal. Russell said Trenton-Mercer is aiming to send in the plan by July 1 and then conduct environmental studies before each of its projects proceed.

Not conducting such a study until after the FAA improves the master plan is a “clear violation” of the National Environmental Policy Act, wrote Lichman.

She elaborated that the airport has a “long history of ignoring” actions that could contribute to its local footprint and that the latest expansion plans are “merely the tip of the iceberg” in terms of what a present study should address.

Residents feel an impact primarily from aircraft noise, especially when planes are flying low or touching down late at night, wrote supervisor chairwoman Kristin Tyler in a second letter to Russell.

The residents group Bucks Residents for Responsible Airport Management has pursued multiple court cases against the FAA and different airlines, arguing that they started service out of Trenton-Mercer without conducting environmental studies. The most recent airline in their crosshairs was Allegiant, which received the FAA’s go-ahead to operate out of the airport in November.

The group met with township officials and requested financial assistance in the Allegiant case, but officials are choosing to wait on counsel from Lichman before making a decision.

Lower Makefield contributed at least $55,000 between two previous cases BRRAM filed against airlines aiming to operate out of Trenton-Mercer — one case, against Eastwinds, successfully prompted the FAA to halt its airline operations, while the other, against Frontier, did not. Upper Makefield and Yardley also pitched in $15,000 and $2,000, respectively, in the group’s case against Frontier.

Russell said the FAA is responsible for certifying airlines to operate out of Trenton-Mercer, not the airport itself. And the current master plan, he said, is just a planning document, not subject to NEPA.

“The master plan will contain an environmental overview chapter, but that’s not a NEPA process — it’s just not,” he said.

He added that the FAA will not clear any “big, controversial” projects without an environmental study, nor will it approve any federal grant funding for them.

Russell said Trenton-Mercer also will submit an expanded noise contour map — a map that shows areas near the airport where residents experience a day-night average sound level of 65 decibels — to the FAA. Residents living within the zone might be eligible for federal noise mitigation relief, he said, though he acknowledged noise levels below 65 decibels might still be an “annoyance” for residents living outside.

Public comments and concerns are being incorporated into the airport’s master plan in an appendix section, which Russell said will stay relevant as project components move forward.

“It’s not like those comments are going to get thrown away because they were made during the master plan,” he said. “So many are germane to what’s going to happen with the terminal project.”

Though the airport stopped formally accepting comment June 10, Lower Makefield shared the airport’s noise reporting form on the township’s website.

The form asks residents to share when airport noise disturbed them, the specific source of the noise and why the noise was bothersome.

Lower Makefield’s website encourages residents to submit a complaint “every time” a flight bothers them, elaborating that airport officials “have to pay some attention” to them.

Trenton-Mercer is county-owned and one of three commercial airports in New Jersey. It averages about 70,000 aircraft operations per year that include commercial flights, private and corporate aircraft as well as military and first-responder aviation.

Source: Bucks County Courier Times