Delaware County residents living near Philadelphia International Airport are gearing up to fight its expansion.
The $5.2 billion project, approved last week by the Federal Aviation Administration, calls for paving over 80 acres of wetlands, relocating residents of 72 homes, and displacing 80 businesses.
But some residents of tiny Tinicum Township say they’re not budging.
Tinicum has the distinction of being the first permanent settlement in Pennsylvania. Its five square miles are actually an island, bordered by Darby Creek, the Delaware River and its back channels and marshland. About 4,400 people live in this blue-collar town where the local elementary school was recently named one of 300 “Blue Ribbon” schools across the country.
Tinicum also has five yacht clubs, several hotels, the UPS hub, plenty of birdlife and two-thirds of Philadelphia International Airport.
Dolores Waldeck has lived in Tinicum for 25 years. Now the city wants to buy her home, for what it says will be a fair price.
“Well, it’s a matter of being kicked out of my home. What’s fair market value nowadays? For me to get what I have now, minimal, I’ll have to pay $250,000. And I’m not financially willing to go into debt right now,” says Waldeck.
“I have two children that will be in college next year,” she says. “I live in Delaware County, I don’t live in Philadelphia. I’m not against an expansion but Philadelphia has to figure out how to do it in Philadelphia.”
Like many of her neighbors, Waldeck now has a sign on her lawn that proclaims “Not for sale.”
Philadelphia officials say they won’t seize any property through eminent domain simply because they don’t have authority to do so. But the federal government can. A spokesman for the FAA wouldn’t directly answer questions about eminent domain; instead, he said Philadelphia has a plan to purchase from willing buyers.
Residents say they endure the bulk of the negatives of living next to an airport, and benefit from few of the positives. A recent airspace redesign resulted in more planes flying over Tinicum neighborhoods.
In a home just down the street from Waldeck, workers are putting in sound insulation to muffle the roar of more jet engines overhead. Millions of dollars have been spent to insulate homes from the sound of these jets. But those same homes eventually are slated for destruction tio make way for new runways and relocation of the UPS hub. The irony is not lost on homeowner Tom Rich.
“Well, that’s the government. They reach into each other’s pocket. They steal from Peter to pay Paul. They just waste money,” he says.
Rich says he’s not sure whether he’ll sell to the city.
At Miller’s cafe on Governor Printz Boulevard, diners seem united against the expansion.
Dave McCann is one of the most active members of the new grassroots group RAAED or Residents Against the Airport Expansion in Delco.
“What we’ve been trying and trying to get through to people is we’re not this rabid organization that doesn’t want it in our town. We’re actually in favor of commerce, the airport is a part of the culture of our town,” said McCann. “We want jobs, we want a good economy, but what we’re saying is this program isn’t going to work.”
When McCann speaks, he sounds like an aviation expert. He says he had to learn the lingo in order to make sense of all the reports and bureaucratic presentations given to residents about the project.
McCann says although the bulk of the airport is in Tinicum, that section is primarily runways. So the majority of workers who pay wage taxes are in Philadelphia, not Delaware County.
Up until 2007, the city sent money to Tinicum for use of its land, but the two have since been at an impasse over those payments.
In addition to that, McCann says the loss of homes and businesses will hurt the tax base of Interboro School District.
McCann wants the FAA to look at expanding Northeast Philadelphia Airport, or diverting flights to regional airports such as Atlantic City. But the FAA says it can’t force airlines to move to other regional airports.
Christine Derenick-Lopez is the airport’s chief of staff. By 2030, she says the number of annual passengers will double to 60 million. In bad weather, the airport can handle only one plane at a time.
“In 2009, Philadelphia was the fourth most delayed airport in the country. In 2010, we were the seventh most delayed airport in the country. Over the past several years we’ve been one of the most delayed airport in the country,” says Derenick-Lopez. “So I think there’s a lot of data to support the need to address the capacity issues here at this airport.”
Derenick-Lopez says she is sensitive to the concerns of the Tinicum residents, but she says the need is glaring and there are few workable solutions. She says the city wants to be a good neighbor and is optimistic about the project.
But back at Miller’s Cafe, McCann says the battle with the airport expansion has just begun.
“And they just figure people will aren’t going to be paying attention or people will get lost or they’ll be able to sell people a bill of goods. ‘Oh yeah, we need to have something for the region,’ ” he says. “But you have people like us who clearly get it. And you’re not pulling the wool over our eyes at all, not at all.”
Airport officials say acquisition of land is still two to three years away. The project itself is expected to take 15 years to complete.