The return to friendly skies over Queens may come thanks to the efforts of nearly two dozen aspiring attorneys studying environmental law at CUNY Law School, formerly of Flushing, now located in Long Island City.
The Northeast Queens community is in the throes of a battle with the Federal Aviation Administration over new flight patterns into and out of LaGuardia Airport that residents say have diminished their quality of life.
The student’s involvement began with a friendly inquiry from Community Board 11 member Janet McEneaney, who reached out to CUNY Law School Dean Michelle Anderson, who, in turn, suggested Professor Rebecca Bratspies. McEneaney was only looking for one student to help navigate some of the legal aspects of the FAA’s decision.
“Instead of one law student, we have 21,” she said.
Bratspies saw in the FAA’s new flight patterns an opportunity to dissect environmental law from nearly every angle, including environmental justice, noise, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act.
“I realized this could be a great project for my class,” she said.
That’s what it has become; the students now have a semester-long project, dissecting the various legal aspects of the FAA’s decision and Northeast Queens’ qualms.
“This is an ambitious project,” Bratspies said. “There is so much rhetoric in the air about law school preparing people for practice. This is real. I’m hoping this can be a model for how to run this class.”
The novelty of the assignment doesn’t just apply to the students, but also the teacher. Though she’s an environmental lawyer, the professor admitted she doesn’t know too much about laws governing the skies.
“I’ve flown on planes,” she said jokingly.
The FAA’s new patterns were made permanent last fall, after an initial “test period.” The new patterns call for outbound flights on Runway 13 to turn east over Kew Gardens and then north over Flushing and Bayside. The resulting increase in noise has been accompanied by concerns over pollution, among other headaches.
But the students aren’t picking sides.
“The students are here to learn; they are not advocates for anyone at this point,” Bratspies said. “I’m really encouraging them to take the issue that has been presented and use it as a lens.”
The class will ultimately produce a report for the community, which will be presented to the community board and available to the public online. Bratspies is also considering publishing the work as a book.
Bratspies’ assignment has left community members like McEneaney ebullient.
“I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with CUNY Law School,” she said, after meeting with the class and speaking to some students individually. “These students are great. They’re just excited about pitching in.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) has been among several elected officials at the forefront of the fight with the FAA. He met with the CUNY law students himself to discuss the issue, and left with high hopes the outcome would be fruitful. On a practical level, they’re simply saving activists and elected officials time, according to Avella.
“Anything they can do will be very helpful,” he said. “It’s saving a lot of research time.”
Bratspies has taken an early glance at the legal picture, and doesn’t like what she sees.
“I’m very disturbed to find the FAA resorted to categorical exceptions to avoid environmental planning,” she said. “It’s something that concerns me deeply that I’ve written about in the past.”
Avella has also scheduled a community meeting with the FAA to air complaints and hear the agency out. The gathering will be on March 14, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Bay Terrace Jewish Center, 1300 209 St.
Efforts like CUNY Law’s have helped deepen an interest in the federal decisions that affect day-to-day life, according to Avella.
“More and more people are conscious of the effects that these facilities have on the environment,” he said. “A lot of people are asking, ‘Hey, what happened to the community I moved into?’”
That now includes the law school, according to Bratspies, and her class’ work serves as a reflection of that belief.
“I’m very excited about this,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for the college to reach out into the community.”