Appreciation: Peter Koff, Longtime Environmental Advocate and Protector of Eastie Against Airport Expansion, Dies at 80

In the early 1970s, Attorney Peter Koff fired the first salvo across the bow of Massport’s ship and began a lifelong career of advocating for and defending the community against noise and air pollution as well as Logan Airport expansion. 

“He was always a decent person, and a tireless advocate for East Boston in the conflicts with the airport,” said former State Secretary of Transportation under Gov. Mike Dukakis and East Boston’s Little City Hall Manager under Mayor Kevin White, Fred Salvucci. 

Koff, who served in the City of Boston Law Department under Mayor White and later became counsel Eastie’s Airport Impact Relief (AIR Inc) and the Logan Airport Community Advisory Committee, died on Saturday, Sept. 11 at his home for the last five years, the Brudnick Center for Living in Peabody. He devoted his legal career to environmental and land use law and civil litigation for nearly 40 years here in Eastie and throughout Boston. 

Attorney Peter Koff.

“A particularly important early action that Peter took when he was still working for the City Law Department, and I was Little City Hall Manager in East Boston, was suing Ed King’s Massport on the American terminal building,” said Salvucci of Koff’s early advocacy for the community. “Massport was proceeding to build the terminal with a large parking garage in it without doing an Environmental Impact Report. King insisted that as an “independent” Authority, Massport was exempt from the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act.”

In the 1970s, before the construction of the Ted Williams Tunnel, congestion in the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels, and all the East Boston streets leading to the tunnels were severely gridlocked, and adding more airport parking would generate still more auto traffic, worsening congestion and air pollution in Eastie. 

“The Governor Sargent Administration was an ally of the city in proposing a cap on the amount of parking at Logan, in order to prevent the situation from getting even worse,” said Salvucci. 

While Massport was represented by all the big downtown law firms, Koff was working in the smaller staffed City Law Department with only moral support from his colleagues. There he rolled up his sleeves and was able to deliver a landmark environmental victory for the neighborhood.  

“Peter won,” said Salvucci. “He was totally correct that the environmental law applied to Massport just like any other state agency. The victory was important because of the importance of the traffic congestion and related air pollution issues, but also as a court ruling setting the precedent that after that, Massport would need to comply with environmental law.”

After that victory Massport intended to build a dual taxiway all the way into Jeffries point, parallel to Maverick street, bringing aircraft operations, ground noise and air pollution much closer to the Eastie residents, as well as the proposed runway 14-32, which threatened take offs and landings over Jeffries Point. 

“The runway was enjoined for decades, and eventually built with restrictions preventing aircraft operations over Jeffries Point,” said Salvucci. “The taxiway was also stopped, and the AIR Inc agreement was established to provide a better forum for discussion of airport issues with the community, another very important precedent.”

John Vitagliano, who in 1971 was coordinating the community opposition in Eastie, Winthrop, South Boston and elsewhere to Massport’s expansion plan for Logan Airport, first began working with Koff against those efforts. 

“Peter was the leader of Boston’s extensive, effective and successful environmental lawsuits that were instrumental in the ultimate rejection of the Logan expansion plan,” said Vitagliano of then Massport Director Ed King’s manifest destiny of having Massport takeover everything in Eastie on the Logan side of the Blue Line. “If that gigantic expansion plan had ever been approved it would have without question destroyed the community viability of East Boston, Winthrop and South Boston. After years of intensive struggle and opposition from Logan’s abutters and the Boston Law Department the plan was rejected. The ultimate success of the Boston lawsuits was attributable in large part to Peter Koff’s dedication and legal skills as the leader of the program.”

After his career in the Boston Law Department Koff continued to support Eastie’s struggles against Massport by volunteering his services to AIR, Inc.’s extensive opposition to environmentally deleterious Massport programs as well as the controversial Runway 14/32 construction. 

“When we’re faced with big problems, it’s natural to try to avoid them,” said AIR, Inc.’s Chris Marchi.  “Where most people assume they can’t affect things like environmental pollution, activists like Peter Koff and Mary Ellen Welch believed they could make change. East Boston and AIR, Inc. were fortunate to have Peter’s optimism, vision and expertise for nearly forty years. Without his relentless belief in and dedication to change we could never have achieved the successes we’ve accomplished over the years. When you’re walking on the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, or visiting a home with soundproofed windows… or going to a performance in a park or at Zumix …or sending your children to a camp or a school program funded by the East Boston Foundation, any of these things are just proof that your efforts can make a difference.”

Peter was born in New York City, NY, on November 26, 1940, son of the late Murray and Sylvia Koff of Scarsdale, NY.  After graduating from Scarsdale High School in 1958, Koff attended the University of Virginia where he received his B.A. degree in 1962. He continued on to the University of Virginia School of Law, graduating with his L.L.B. degree in 1965, followed by service in the Coast Guard Reserve. 

Koff’s tireless work to address environmental issues associated with infrastructure projects throughout Boston eventually earned him the nickname “Mad Dog” among local activists. 

In his last act of continuing to support Eastie’s environmental justice struggles, Koff asked that donations be made in his memory to the Conservation Law Foundation’s Taking Back Boston Harbor campaign or to AIR Inc.’s Air Quality Campaign to get air filters into all Eastie schools and residences. “It’s fitting that Peter selected AIR, Inc. and Mothers Out Front’s air filter campaign as a charity for his remembrances,” said Marchi. “One day -hopefully soon children in every East Boston classroom will be protected from airport pollution by quality air filter machines. Sometime after that, they’ll be protected in their homes. It’s a big challenge. But remember: we can and must do better, and if we work together, we will. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from Peter Koff.”

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