Pilots expressed frustrations last week about East Hampton Town’s proposed penalties for those who violate the newly adopted access restrictions at East Hampton Airport, as well as concerns that the airport has not been properly maintained.
The Town Board held a public hearing on Thursday, May 7, on a proposed fine schedule, which could include penalties of up to $10,000 depending on the number of times someone violates the new codes, which are designed to reduce noise.
“You’re hurting me, you’re hurting my brethren—and let me explain how you’re hurting us. You’re grounding us,” said pilot Kathryn Slye. “The last thing you want is small, local pilots forced into a scenario where they have to hurry, and if they don’t make it back in time, they’re grounded for a year. We have enough things to worry about up there for us to be penalized for being five, 10 or 20 minutes late because of factors out of our control.”
The proposed penalties would fine an aviator or aviation entity $1,000 for the first violation and $4,000 for a second. The fine jumps to $10,000 for a third violation. With a fourth, the individual aircraft would be banned from using the airport for up to two years.
The fines could double if a pilot violates more than one rule. If someone violates another rule within five years of a previous violation, there would be a minimum additional fine of $2,000. The town also may file suit or seek an injunction against the pilot or business.
The Town Board plans on evaluating the effectiveness of the fines beginning September 30.
According to Ms. Slye, who flies a Cessna, the average time a pilot flies in a year is anywhere from 25 to 50 hours, and a $1,000 fine would equal 15 hours of fuel, while a $4,000 fine would be equivalent to 60 hours of fuel.
“The first fine would ground us for six months,” she said. “The second would ground us for over a year.”
Ms. Slye suggested the Town Board consider a waiver for locally based aircraft who may come in late so that local pilots would not have to sacrifice safety to meet the curfews.
The new curfew bans all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., year-round. Aircraft classified as “noisy” will not be permitted to take off or land between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m., year-round. Furthermore, aircraft classified as “noisy” will be allowed only one takeoff and landing per week between May and September.
The Town Board has defined “noisy” aircraft as any airplane or helicopter that has an Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels (EPNdB) approach level of 91.0 or greater based on noise characteristics published by the Federal Aviation Administration or the European Aviation Safety Agency.
In response to a request by Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, the Town Board on Thursday night approved approximately $2,000 to set up and implement the Plane Noise system at the Montauk Airport in order to measure noise complaints stemming from any increase in traffic there due to the access restrictions at East Hampton Airport. The complaint line for Montauk residents will be up and running within the next week, according to Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the board’s airport liaison.
East Hampton Town filed a brief expressing its opposition to a temporary restraining order, or TRO, applied for by a coalition of aviation interests that sued the town in April for adopting the new restrictions designed to reduce noise generated by air traffic at the airport.
In the court filing, opponents requested a TRO to block the town from putting the restrictions into effect. There will be a hearing on May 18 regarding the request.
In its brief, the town argues that the TRO should not be granted because the aviation businesses’ claim is “purely financial and can be mitigated by changing their way of doing business or through damages.” Furthermore, the FAA did not respond to the town’s intent to adopt the laws and took no action, except to support the TRO, according to the statement. The FAA did not take a position on the merits of the TRO, however.
“Plaintiffs greatly overstate the magnitude of impact the local laws might have on their business in the very limited time during which the TRO would be in effect,” the brief states. “If the local laws are enjoined, the tens of thousands of residents in the town and nearby areas will be subjected to unreasonable levels of noise, the impacts from which can never be mitigated.”
The Town Board again enlisted Kaplan, Kirsch & Rockwell LLP, capping legal fees at $425,000, to defend itself in a lawsuit related to its new airport curfews and access restrictions.
Responding to criticism from Quiet Skies Coalition members on Thursday night, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby abstained from voting on the resolution, citing resident concerns about the move.
Kaplan, Kirsch & Rockwell has been advising the town on airport matters since 2007, and has over the years “flip-flopped,” according to resident and Quiet Skies Coalition member Susan McGraw Keber.
“It doesn’t make sense to retain Kirsch,” she told the board. “[Peter Kirsch] told the board to renew [Federal Aviation Administration] funding … his advice changed.”
In 2011, in a presentation to the board, he listed “common mis-perceptions”: the town’s grant assurances will expire at end of 2014; once grant assurances expire, the town will be free to restrict aviation access to the airport; many other airports have successfully imposed restrictions on their airports in recent years; and the town can regulate helicopter routes.
But Mr. Kirsch on Monday said that a lot changed from 2011 to 2012. No one knew what position the FAA would take on whether it would respect a 2005 settlement agreement it made, which provided that four grant assurances would expire at the end of 2014, freeing the town to adopt rules, and whether the FAA would require the town to adhere to certain federal regulations regarding airport noise mitigation. Because of that Mr. Kirsch said his firm advised the Town Board in 2011 to assume the town would still be under certain restrictions after December 31, 2014. “We also advised that securing FAA approval would be enormously difficult,” he added.
But an FAA letter in response to former U.S. Representative Tim Bishop in 2012 seemingly resolved both questions, Mr. Kirsch said. The FAA said it would respect the 2005 agreement not to enforce the four grant assurances and that the federal regulations would no longer apply to the town after December 31, 2014, changing the law firm’s position on how to proceed.
Jemille Charlton, the airport manager, is planning to tweak the northeastern departure route, which heads toward Barcelona Neck, to bring helicopters and other aircraft in tighter to alleviate aircraft noise this summer.
The “Echo” route has been allowing pilots to fly directly over Sag Harbor, even following Main Street, he said last week. By moving a mandatory point, for those who wish to take the voluntary noise abatement route, aircraft will transition less populated areas and over the South Ferry area to the eastern side of Barcelona Neck as opposed to the west side, Mr. Charlton said.
“We’re trying to bring noise complaints down,” he said. “I looked at the data from the past few years, and quite a few aircraft were confused as to the wording for the Echo departure route. It’s not going to be perfect, but things can change.”
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said he is concerned that by changing the route the town could not easily assess the impact the airport restrictions may have on noise complaints.
“The baseline would be thrown out by shifting routes,” he said. “If we go messing about and concentrating traffic in a certain location, I don’t know how to assess the changes that would happen with those restrictions.”
But Mr. Charlton said that he based his recommendation from previous data, which takes into account that the routes have been changed on a day-to-day basis, with help from the Eastern Region Helicopter Council when needed. He said once traffic begins flowing this summer, he may take a look at the southern voluntary route, which takes aircraft over the Georgica area. He said this route and the northern route, which goes over power lines, haven’t caused nearly as much trouble as the Echo route.