Delco, Tinicum sue to block airport expansion

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May 28--Long-simmering tensions between city-owned Philadelphia International Airport and its municipal neighbors have boiled into a lawsuit over plans to expand the airport.

Tinicum Township and Delaware County are asking a court to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring the city to get consent from the township and county before buying land in an adjacent municipality.

The lawsuit against the city, filed Tuesday in Delaware County Court, seeks to block the Philadelphia airport's master "capacity enhancement plan" from further encroaching into Tinicum Township.

A spokesman for Mayor Nutter said the city would fight the suit.

Neighbors oppose extending an existing runway as well as a proposed 9,100-foot east-west runway along the Delaware River, where a UPS Inc. facility is now situated.

The city wants to relocate UPS to nearby vacant land in Tinicum, known as the Henderson Tract. The plan also calls for acquiring 72 homes and 80 businesses west of Fourth Avenue in Lester.

That move will cost 3,300 jobs and thousands of dollars in lost tax revenue for the county, for communities including Ridley, Lester, and Essington, and for the Interboro School District, the lawsuit contends.

In a briefing, John Whelan, vice chairman of the Delaware County Council, said the county was not opposed to the airport's buying the Henderson parcel.

The concern is displacing residents and jobs and expanding the airfield further into Tinicum, bringing more jets, noise, and pollution.

Michael Messina, president of the Tinicum Township commissioners, said the expansion would harm 80 acres of wetlands, fill in about 25 to 30 acres of the Delaware River, and reduce water flow along the inner channel of Little Tinicum Island.

"This is a David-vs.-Goliath issue. Two-thirds of the airport is in Tinicum Township. Now they want more," Messina said.

"The City of Philadelphia wants to spend millions of dollars purchasing land in Tinicum Township when they are closing libraries, furloughing city employees, and eliminating firehouses. There are other options."

Those options include reducing congestion and delays by diverting more flights to nearby regional airports, such as Northeast Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Allentown, Whelan said.

Delays also could be reduced with technological improvements, and if more passengers traveled by rail and buses instead of airplanes, Whelan said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, after public meetings and hearings several years ago, concluded that using regional airports and employing other modes of transportation were "not reasonable alternatives."

The FAA is expected to decide the runway project's fate by early next year.

Until 2007, the township and city had an agreement that Philadelphia would get approval from commissioners before buying land in Tinicum, Delaware County Solicitor John McBlain said. That agreement expired in 2007, and the parties have not come to terms on a new pact, he said.

"Philadelphia International Airport is a regional asset that benefits every county in the region, including Delaware County," said Nutter's spokesman, Doug Oliver.

The expansion will "increase capacity to accommodate current and future demand and also reduce total delays and the cost of those delays," he said.

"We are always willing to talk about it," Oliver said. "Now, it has moved into a legal environment, and so the Law Department will review the specifics and we'll present our case in court."

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Contact staff writer Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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