A federal court has ruled that the curfews imposed at East Hampton Airport over the last two summers must be abandoned—sparking declarations of relief by aviation interests and newly invigorated talks about closing the airport entirely in the near future by those most opposed to the noise the airport creates.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in a ruling issued on Friday, found that East Hampton Town overstepped its authority in imposing two curfews on flights in and out of East Hampton Airport.
The court agreed with the arguments made by attorneys for the Friends of East Hampton Airport—a collection of aviation businesses that rely on the airport and filed suit following the adoption of the curfews in the spring of 2015—that the town had failed to comply with the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, which was enacted by Congress to prevent a patchwork of local regulations from interfering with aircraft travel.
Town officials said in a statement on Friday that they had been led to believe, through a letter from the FAA to former U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, that the town would be able to enact “reasonable” restrictions on aircraft at the municipally owned and operated airport.
The curfews halted all flights into and out of the airport between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and restricted especially noisy aircraft to between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The appeals court upheld a previous injunction on a third town law that placed limits on the number of times a given aircraft could land or take off at the airport in a given week.
“The East Hampton Aviation Association appreciates the hard work and careful consideration by the court in issuing its ruling,” said Kent Feuerring, president of the Aviation Association, a group that represents pilots and airport interests and has lobbied against the curfews but was not affiliated with the lawsuit. “Aviation has been an integral part of our community for more than 80 years and we hope this ruling will allow that tradition to continue. We look forward to continuing to work with the Town of East Hampton and the community to find reasonable solutions for any airport noise-related concerns.”
The laws, adopted in 2015, were offered by the Town Board as an effort to tamp down the noise effects of the airport on residents living beneath flight paths. In an assessment earlier this year, consultants told the Town Board that the curfews had served to nudge aircraft operators toward quieter aircraft in general, reduced the number of helicopter flights and effectively ended late-night flights into and out of the airport.
This week’s ruling drew immediate criticism from local officials. The town, which owns the airport property and has spent more than $1 million fighting the Friends lawsuit and several others still pending, released a statement saying town officials are “deeply disappointed” at the ruling.
“Although today’s court decision places the solution to the aviation noise problem firmly at the feet of Congress and the FAA, the town will continue to explore every available option so that the residents of the East End won’t continue to be inflicted by an unrelenting din from the skies above,” the statement reads.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. also released a statement blasting the court for having expanded federal control and weakened home rule. He also hinted about the possibility of the town someday closing the airport entirely if it cannot find ways to adequately reduce the impacts the facility has on residents.
“The health and safety of its residents must always take precedence over commercial enterprise,” Mr. Thiele said in the statement. “While I have always believed that the responsible operation of an airport in East Hampton is an asset to the town, this court causes all responsible persons to first reconsider whether or not the town should be in the airport business.”
On Tuesday, Supervisor Larry Cantwell said that the Town Board is still exploring its options with its legal counsel and consultants who advise the board about airport management options.
Mr. Cantwell’s and Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez’s election to the Town Board in 2013 started the campaign by the town to upgrade airport facilities and rein in noise impacts on residents. Mr. Cantwell said that will continue to be their overarching goal.
“Our ability to locally control the airport based on this decision has been denied, so we have to look at what other options are available to us,” he said. “The Town Board’s goal has always been to maintain a safe airport and to enact local controls that would make it quiet enough to be a good neighbor. What legal remedies we have to do that in the face of this decision, we have to evaluate.”
The supervisor acknowledged that the ruling has only added fuel to the fire of calls to close the airport completely that arose this summer with the formation of a new group, Say No To KHTO, that has demanded the airport’s closure.
“The goal of this board has never been to close the airport,” he said, however. “As disappointed as we are, this is not a moment to jump to conclusions about its future.”
He noted that closing the airport would not even be up for consideration until 2022, when the last of the town’s agreed-to operational guarantees with the FAA from large grants in the past will expire. Even then, Mr. Cantwell said, proposing to close the airport would not be something the town could just do on its own without FAA involvement. But with the understanding that calls for closing the airport altogether are rising, Mr. Cantwell said he is hopeful that aircraft operators will find ways to cooperate with the town voluntarily to trim back the impacts on residents.
“I think the aviation interests have to understand that if this problem continues to get worse,” he said, “there will be growing sentiment to close the airport from parts of this community.”