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Tinicum Township, city reach deal on airport expansion but residents still leery

It is a peaceful neighborhood, filled with the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs, and children playing on manicured lawns.

A passenger airliner lands at Philadelphia International Airport over 4th Avenue.
A passenger airliner lands at Philadelphia International Airport over 4th Avenue.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It is a peaceful neighborhood, filled with the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs, and children playing on manicured lawns.

Until an airplane takes off or roars in for a landing.

The constant rumble of engines at Philadelphia International Airport is part of the sound track of Tinicum Township, Delaware County, home to 4,000 people and two-thirds of the airport. For years, it also was a reminder of the looming threat that the city of Philadelphia would seize and raze 72 houses in Tinicum as part of a massive expansion project.

Those houses finally are safe.

Officials announced a settlement last week that would keep the neighborhood intact and allow the airport to expand, bringing millions of dollars to the township, Interboro School District, and Delaware County. The estimated cost of the project ranges from $6 billion to $10 billion.

But residents said they were not quite ready to exhale.

"They're saying, 'OK, we're saving your homes,' but to what quality?" asked Susan Schnell. Standing in front of her yellow house on Seminole Street last week with her two basset hounds, she said she still feared the expansion project would increase noise and traffic in her neighborhood.

Reaching a tentative agreement after years of arguments and lawsuits was "a landmark day for Tinicum Township," Thomas Giancristoforo, president of the Board of Commissioners, said as he stood with airport officials before a crowd of 200 residents Thursday night.

His neighbors responded with applause and praise. They also had a clear message for the airport: Tinicum's efforts to hold the airport accountable are not over.

"We are some tough people in this town, and we're not going to take anyone trying to bully us," said Dave McCann, president of Residents Against Airport Expansion in Delaware County, a community group that has been working since 2010 to stop airport expansion.

McCann and others said they were pleased with the settlement proposal, which over the next 20 years could bring more than $45 million in payments to Tinicum Township in addition to the airport's annual property taxes.

That amount includes a one-time settlement payment of $500,000, an annual $1 million payment to Tinicum for 20 years or until the airport construction is complete, and payments for the airport to buy or lease land from the township. Another annual payment of $1.86 million will be divided evenly among Tinicum Township, Delaware County, and the Interboro School District.

The airport had not made annual payments beyond property taxes since 2007, when a previous agreement expired.

"I never, ever thought I'd be standing here in front of you and saying this, but as a general principle for what's tentatively agreed to, this is a very positive thing," McCann said.

The settlement would allow the airport to acquire commercial property in Tinicum to build a runway. The airport also would urge United Postal Service to move farther from residential areas. Airport officials said the much-needed expansion would improve efficiency at the airport, consistently ranked among the most-delayed in the country.

Residents still had questions about the plans, voicing concerns about traffic, construction, noise, and environmental impacts.

Those details likely will play out over coming years, as planning and construction are expected to last more than a decade.

"Sometimes, the relationship between the airport and Tinicum Township has not always been the best, and I hope to be one that actually serves to change that," airport CEO Mark Gale told the residents gathered Thursday night.

Dee Waldeck, who founded the residents' opposition group in 2010 by inviting neighbors to meet in her home – one of the 72 that had been slated for removal – called the settlement a step in the right direction. She still sees flaws in the settlement, but said it was the best plan she had seen.

"We are still going to be watching," Waldeck said.

Others were not satisfied with the agreement.

"I'm a little disgusted with it because we didn't get nothing out of it," Pete Perkins said. As he smoked a cigar in front of his Manhattan Street home on Thursday afternoon, Perkins said he would have preferred to sell his house to the airport.

Those happy to keep their homes said they would not soon forget the stress of the last several years. Residents lived in limbo, unable to sell their houses as the legal battle over their land played out.

"If I wanted to, I still wouldn't be able to sell my home, and neither would any of those 72 homes," Kathy McGovern said.

Schnell, who has lived in the neighborhood next to the airport for 27 years, stood in her yard last week and pointed toward commercial property at the end of her street that could become airport-owned land.

"The houses are saved. I'll just have to find a way to survive here with that," she said. "I'm going nowhere."