East Hampton gains control of airport operations

A helicopter at East Hampton Airport last year. (Credit: Kyril Bromley/The East Hampton Press)
A helicopter at East Hampton Airport last year. (Credit: Kyril Bromley/The East Hampton Press)

The East Hampton Town Board did nothing, and action was taken.

What seems like a contradiction actually means that East Hampton has regained control of its airport and can finally address the issue of helicopters buzzing East End communities.

This power was gained by not applying for grants from the Federal Aviation Administration in the new year.

FAA grants, sought and accepted by East Hampton in 2001 to pay for infrastructure upgrades and other expenses at its airport, came with quid pro quos in the form of “grant assurances.” These required that the airport be open to aircraft traffic around the clock throughout the year, and meant the town could not discriminate against the types of planes or helicopters using the facility. But federal control ended Dec. 31.

Those on the North Fork, South Fork and Shelter Island who have complained for years about excessive noise at all hours of the day and night from spring through fall, now have reason to hope 2015 might be quieter.

The East Hampton board hasn’t just been waiting for the calendar to turn over, however. It has also commissioned noise analysis reports and come up with a plan to finance airport operations without federal money.

The volume of traffic between New York City and East Hampton increased dramatically last summer because of an improving economy and also through phone apps and ride sharing, providing cheaper flights to the Hamptons for the weekend and trips back to the city.

According to airport records, there were 22,350 takeoffs and landings at the East Hampton Airport from January to September 2014; over the same time frame 22,700 complaints were logged about excess noise.

But now, with local government back in control of the airport, restrictions on aircraft companies is front and center on the town’s agenda. Restrictions could include outright bans on helicopters and limited airport operating hours.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who has been among the leaders of the opposition to noisy choppers, said he’s pleased East Hampton will no longer be subject to FAA restrictions.

“I do think for the first time, East Hampton is listening,” Mr. Russell said, admitting it has been “so frustrating for me” through the years to be fighting a battle and seeing no progress.

According to past interviews and citizen complaints, many helicopters have been cutting across Mattituck en route to the South Fork.

Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who won a seat on the East Hampton Town Board in November 2013 running on a platform of curbing excessive noise, and who is the board’s liaison to the airport, said she was looking forward to “having a plan put in place over the next few months and see restrictions effected for the 21015 season.”

One problem the town must face is that local control means local funds will be needed to run and maintain the airport. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said East Hampton can meet that obligation, pointing to a detailed financial report that recommends, among other initiatives, requiring paid parking at the airport, negotiating leases with rental car companies and leasing additional hangar space and other property along with improving the collection of landing fees.

The town’s financial report states that even without any of the revenue enhancement ideas being explored, the town could “generate sufficient cash flow from airport operations and properties to pay debt service on bonds to finance $5.1 to $8.5 million of capital expenditures …”

This means, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, that “right now we think the airport generates enough funds to cover any capital or maintenance projects we need to move forward with over the next few years.”

Battle lines are being drawn, however, between those calling for restrictions on aircraft and strong advocates for the status quo.

“The town’s decision to force local taxpayers to pay for airport upkeep instead of using federal funds is as flawed as the numbers in their supposed noise study,” said Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition, which includes the Eastern Region Helicopter Council — a pilots’ organization — along with aviation companies. “On one hand, the town says it will pay for the airport through an increase in taxes on the aviation community. On the other, it says it will dramatically cut the number of landings, thus significantly cutting revenue. You can’t have it both ways as it makes absolutely zero economic sense. This is just not solid planning and should be deeply troubling for local taxpayers.”

One area of agreement by both sides is that the issue will most likely be settled in court.

Two East Hampton residents, Peter Wolf, an author and expert on land uses, and Kenneth Lipper, a former deputy mayor of New York City, have hired a top Manhattan law firm to make a case for banning all helicopters and seaplanes from the East Hampton Airport.

They’ve been paying Cravath, Swaine & Moore, an international law firm with more than 100 attorneys, to make the case that East Hampton can ban choppers and seaplanes, require all aircraft to meet an established noise level standard and restrict takeoffs and landings to four hours a day.

In a six-page opinion, citing legal precedents, attorney David Greenwald of CS&M concluded that such restriction “reflects a reasonable and non-arbitrary approach to the reduction of noise pollution and does not improperly discriminate against aircraft or aircraft operators …”

Shelter Island Supervisor Jim Dougherty said East Hampton was wise to put information on the airport’s future before the public “to beef up the litigation case. Pilots are tough birds, but they lost a strong ally in the FAA.”

The East Hampton Town Board will discuss the issue at a Feb. 3 work session.