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East Hampton Town Board votes to close airport temporarily, bringing potential relief to North Fork residents

The East Hampton Town Board unanimously voted Thursday to close the controversial airport for traffic on Feb. 28 and reopen a private use airport as of March 4 with a Prior Permission Required Framework in place.

“In light of the expiration of certain FAA restrictions, on Jan. 20, 2022, the East Hampton Town Board voted to deactivate the East Hampton Airport,” according to a press statement issued after the vote.

The Town Board voted to open a private use airport at the site on March 4, a date selected in discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration and a review of historic operations at the East Hampton Airport.

Because the early March days typically reflect low levels of flight activity, the Town Board reasoned that the closing dates would result in “little disruption to aviation.”

The private use airport will be subject to local control, requiring advanced permission before an aircraft can use the private airport. 

Although the prior use restriction initially will appear similar to a public use airport, “substantive restrictions will be implemented prior to the 2022 season in conjunction with a data collection period pursuant to SEQRA (a required environmental review of the impact of the operation).”

The framework provides East Hampton with “flexibility to control the use of the air navigation facilities to respond to the community’s concerns while also allowing certain aeronautical uses to continue,” the Town Board statement said.

“We are embarking on an important step in the Town’s efforts to address aircraft noise, traffic and other environmental and safety concerns in East Hampton,” the statement said.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said the arrangement will enable review and analysis of potential changes to airport operations and make adjustments to address long-held community concerns.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell applauded the East Hampton Town Board action, saying it “showed a great deal of courage.”

Many expected a decision would result in closing the airport or continuing its operation under the same practices that have been in place. Instead, the Town Board found a middle road with a solution that balances interest of everyone while addressing the problems that have plagued surrounding communities for years, he said.

Through the years, promises were made by helicopter pilots to use a route that would keep them over water, flying down to Orient Point and then back up to the East Hampton Airport. But time and added expense resulted in most pilots instead cutting across land and simply moving the crossing from one community to another when complaints in an area grew. They would use a Riverhead crossing, then move south to Mattituck and later to Southold and Greenport. The Greenport crossing also affected Shelter Island residents.

People affected would complain they couldn’t enjoy outdoor activities, including simple conversations because of the frequency of flights causing noise on busy weekends.

While lobbyists on both sides of the issue made their arguments for either closing the airport or maintaining it with business as usual. Mr. Russell said many of the charges were “scare tactics.” He never believed the private Mattituck Airport would be used for helicopter flights to the East End. It’s private and lacks the facilities to absorb such use, he said. The same is true for a landing strip in Orient, he said. 

One of Mattituck Airport’s owners, Paul Pawlowski, echoed a similar sentiment.

“Mattituck Airport is a small airport and I don’t think it’s logical,” he said. “People that are looking to fly in are looking for convenience and to save time. Westhampton Airport’s a great airport, much bigger and much more accommodating. If they’re looking to go to the South Fork, they’re going to go there well before they go to a North Fork airport.”

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said while she understands the cause of the noise resulted from pilots deciding to conserve fuel and shorten the designated flight plan, it has come “at the cost of our residents. We have endured excessive air traffic noise and the disregard for noise abatement,” Ms. Aguiar said.

She expressed surprise at a plan to reopen, albeit as a private airport.

“I truly hope the highly disturbing flight patterns of the past do not resurface,” the supervisor said. “If they do, I caution, we will not tolerate aircrafts flying over Riverhead who are not noise sensitive or neighborly.”  

Representatives from various interest groups have weighed in on the decision.

In a statement from Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesperson for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, said closing the airport would result in further clogging of roads and negatively impact small businesses and residents.

“East Hampton Town’s reliance on faulty legal advice to close the East Hampton Airport without a realistic plan to have it re-open is misguided, reckless and will ultimately prove disastrous for the surrounding communities,” according to the Council. 

Closing the airport will harm the local economy, delay emergency responders and force helicopters and other aviation to other local airports, the statement said.

“This diverted air traffic to the other airports will not only exacerbate noise concerns and hectic air traffic but also further exacerbate the already overcrowded roads,” the statement said.

The council recommends what it calls “a commonsense solution that allows for reduced air traffic at East Hampton, alleviating traffic” while keeping the “vital local economy thriving.” The Council asked the Town Board to divert from the legal advisers’ “radical, dangerous and faulty course to close the airport and instead work with the aviation experts on a solution that works for everyone” and offered to work with the Town to work out a viable means of keeping the airport operating while alleviating problems.

A letter from a group representing residents, students and various civic organizations from across the two forks, including Southold and Riverhead, has argued for closing the airport because of threats to the environment.

“At a time of severe and accelerating climate degradation and continual catastrophes it is essential that those in positions of responsibility do everything possible to slow climate damage and mitigate this earth-threatening crisis,” they said in a letter to the Town Board. 

The airport is a “designated superfund site and place of extraordinary air and groundwater pollution,” they said, charging groundwater contamination of the aquifer had resulted in “poisoning” of hundreds of residential wells.

Adam Irving, a member of the Southold Town Aircraft Noise Steering Committee who signed the letter, called the East Hampton action “a significant first step in recognizing the untenable situation at their airport and taking action to privatize the airport.” Key to the decision is what restrictions will East Hampton place on the airport operation. Banning commercial operations would be “an excellent restriction,” he said. Other members of the steering committee who signed the letter echoed similar sentiments. 

Jack Malley, another member of the Southold Town Aircraft Steering Committee and former pilot who signed the letter, argued against the point that the change could impair emergency flights. 

There are no major airports on the North Fork “and we manage with helicopters all the time. You can land on the causeway, you can land behind the East Marion Fire Department, they land near the Greenport high school,” he said. 

Barry Raebeck, co-founder and co-director of Say No to KHTO and co-founder of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said the growth of the East Hampton Airport poses an environmental danger and destroys the quality of life. He expressed concern about the potential for the decision to be reversed. 

“As long as it’s there, in its capacity, it’s a danger, I think,” he said. He also pointed out that with the current staff shortage, any former airport employees likely wouldn’t be out of work.