East Hampton Town officials have received criticism from several sources for plans to clear more than 20 acres of trees at the edges of the airport’s main runway to improve safety in low-visibility conditions.
Environmentalists, critics of the airport’s growing traffic volume and members of the committee formed to help guide the town’s management of the airport have questioned the plans for the tree removal and the extent to which clearing is necessary.
The town was informed in 2013 by the Federal Aviation Administration that there were “penetrations” by trees of its safety slope for instrument approaches—the heights marked on maps that tell pilots approaching or departing the airport in the dark or heavy fog using only their instruments how high off the ground they have to be to clear of trees and other obstructions.
Environmentalists have blasted the plan to clear the trees since it was announced last month and said that a disturbance of such scope should trigger detailed regulatory review of the environmental impacts.
“Our membership is uniformly opposed to this alteration of our woodlands without a scientific analysis of the consequences of this deforestation, without a frank assessment of the presumed benefits to the safety and efficiency of the operation of the airport, and without a balanced assessment of the interests of our citizens in preservation of our natural woodlands versus the expansion of aviation operations at our airport,” said Jim Matthews, co-chairman of the East Hampton Environmental Coalition, in a statement from the group.
On Friday, members of the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee leveled their own doubts about the necessity of the scope of the clearing in a nearly four-hour discussion of the issue. The current safety slope is 20-to-1, meaning one foot of height for every 20 feet of distance over the ground, as laid out in a 1988 layout plan for the airport. But the town’s most recent airport layout plan calls for a 34-to-1 slope, which would greatly increase the amount of trees that would have to be removed, and was the ratio on which the town based its clearing plans.
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said this week that following last week’s meeting of the AMAC the town would be taking a closer look at the FAA requirements and what it sees as necessary for the airport. She said the town will have detailed drawings of the exact change in scope of clearing to meet the 20-to-1 and 34-to-1 slopes ready for the next AMAC meeting later this month.
“We need to take a look at what the impacts would be,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “We may have to go back to the FAA and say we’re doing 20-to-1.”
She said that neither of the two slope plains would change the size or type of aircraft that could use the airport’s main runway in low-visibility conditions.
At the first Town Board discussion of the clearing plans, the town’s director of planning, Marguerite Wolffsohn, said that the necessary clearing of trees piercing the flight plains could be done two ways: through broad clearing of all trees or the selected clearing of only trees that extend into the safety zone. Ms. Wolffsohn recommended the broader clearing because it would allow underbrush to regenerate quickly and grow undisturbed for an extended period, whereas selective tree removal would require regular disturbances in the woods to remove trees as they grew into the flight path.