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State once again debating future of Brainard Airport

Hartford–Brainard Airport is a towered public airport three miles southeast of downtown Hartford, in Hartford County, Connecticut.
Courtesy of Connecticut Airport Authority
Hartford–Brainard Airport is a towered public airport three miles southeast of downtown Hartford, in Hartford County, Connecticut.

State lawmakers are considering a bill to evaluate the future of the Hartford-Brainard Airport. If the measure is approved, it would direct $1.5 million in state taxpayer money to study whether or not the airport should stay in operation.

The proposal comes less than six years after another state-run study concluded that the best use for the land at Brainard was as an airport.

As of now, the state owns Brainard. The roughly 200 acre parcel is bordered by a trash facility to the north and the Connecticut River to the east.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told members of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee Thursday that his city is missing out on taxes and development opportunities on the prime waterfront land.

“You’d be hard pressed to find many locations – many parcels – like this anywhere in New England,” Bronin said. “Two hundred acres of riverfront land at the intersection of two major highways is a rare find,”Bronin said.

“Residential is one possibility, but you can also imagine this area becoming a campus – a commercial campus – for businesses.”

Whether or not the land is clean enough for business or residential development is not clear. Supporters of commissioning a new $1.5 million study said Thursday that a new investigation could help determine the extent of environmental contamination at the site.

As the Hartford Courant has reported, concerns have been raised about soil and coal tar contamination.

James Sánchez, a Hartford city councilman, acknowledged “there’s concerns about environmental issues under the tarmac” at Brainard.

“This is the exact bill we need to address their concerns,” Sánchez said. “This study will address that, it will bring out the truth.”

But some lawmakers expressed skepticism about why a new study was needed when the previous analysis already concluded the land’s best use was as an airport.

“I would feel better about this, if I knew that the city had a grand plan – or at least something in the ballpark – about what could be developed,” said Rep. Larry Butler (D-Waterbury). “I really think there’s a lot more that needs to be brought to the table before we necessarily go forward with this.”

Sánchez said the 2016 study wasn’t “a true comprehensive study” and that “this study is the actual study that has been needed for so many years.”

But authorizing a new study was opposed Thursday by many pilots, mechanics, and teachers in the aviation industry. They cited the potential impacts that an early airfield closure could have on the state’s air traffic and flight schools operating out of the airport.

Then there’s the money issue – shutting down an airport can be very costly.

“It’s a very lengthy and expensive process that you have to go through to close an airport,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which owns and operates six airports in Connecticut, including Hartford-Brainard.

“The FAA has a very standardized process that has to be followed … there would be a requirement to pay back the outstanding useful life of any federal grants. Currently, that’s estimated to be about $1.4 million. And whoever closes the airport would have to pay fair market value for the property,” Dillion said. “[That’s] … about $43 million.”

Dillion said the probability of the legislation being passed is “certainly uncertain.”

Any future committee vote is just one step in the legislative process. The measure would still need to be approved by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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