The perennial debate over helicopter noise and the configuration of runways at the East Hampton Airport is one step closer to a resolution this week, although questions abound over whether plans afoot at the airport will actually help reduce the chopper noise that pains residents from as far away as Southampton Town and the North Fork.
Last Thursday, before a crowd of about 85 people at the Springs Firehouse, the East Hampton Town Board heard comment on the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement for the airport’s master plan.
That plan includes measures ranging from building a seasonal control tower to closing one secondary runway and re-opening another runway that is in serious disrepair to the relocation of Daniels Hole Road to allow pilots to use the full length of the main runway for landings.
Town Supervisor Bill McGintee was quick to remind attendees that the town is limited in what it can do to control noise at the airport, though many people present said that they believed the town could do more than it has so far to limit noise pollution.
“We are handcuffed. These are rules the FAA makes,” he said of the town’s inability to restrict traffic coming into the airport because of rules imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration. “We’re in charge of what goes on on the ground, but the airspace is FAA jurisdiction….The last time we had a hearing at East Hampton High School we were getting comments like ‘Ban everything on the face of this earth….’ We need to have an airport that meets the needs of the user groups. We are all neighbors.”
But for many present, the town’s reluctance to take advice from Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, a law firm that specializes in airport noise, despite having retained that firm in April, and its reluctance to undergo a costly Part 161 study, which examines the impacts of noise and access restrictions within an “airport noise study area,” were major concerns.
Such a study would encompass the area where noise levels reach 65 decibels according to an FAA formula that averages noise, both day and night, over the course of a year.
Many who spoke at the hearing in favor of more stringent noise controls said that the formula, known as DNL, is severely flawed, and doesn’t take into account the seasonal nature of the East Hampton Airport.
Kathy Cunningham, the chairwoman of the Airport Noise Abatement Committee, had harsh words for the airport on behalf of members of the group.
She commended the airport staff for working with noise complaints but said that the critical flaw of the DEIS was its “total failure to deal with the noise problem.”
“The master plan has no stated noise abatement goals,” she added.
Les Blomberg, the executive director of the Vermont noise pollution advocacy group Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, made a compelling case for the flaws in the FAA’s noise model.
“Noise pollution can either protect the polluter or protect the polluted,” he said. “Aviation noise is not regulated by the EPA. Noise is the only pollutant regulated by the people who create it.”
Mr. Blomberg compared the DNL formula to the notion that, if you average the pain you’d feel if you were punched by Mike Tyson over a month or a year, it wouldn’t hurt as bad.
“If you’re pulled over by an FAA policeman doing 90 decibels in a residential area, you say ‘Officer, it’s quieter than the entire noise averaged over a year,’ and he lets you go,” he said.
Mr. Blomberg added that East Hampton’s regulations that noise be kept under 65 decibels between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and below 50 decibels at other times of the day are the same standards surrounding the busy Newark airport.
He said that, if the town had the ability to fine aircraft its usual $1,000 noise violation fine, it would be able to generate $5.4 billion in revenue.
“I’ve heard rumors that that might be useful,” he said.
“We’d make a lot of money, but I don’t think people would be coming into the airport anymore,” countered Mr. McGintee.
Mr. Blomberg urged the board to regain financial control of the airport by not continuing to take federal money for upkeep. The town is not allowed to limit the types or quantity of airplanes that can land at the airport until 2014 as a condition of accepting grant money from the FAA for airport improvements.
“You can’t build infrastructure that will attract noisier aircraft,” he added. “It’s the aviation field of dreams. If you build it, they will come.”
Pat Hope, who lives on Swamp Road near Northwest Creek, said that she was initially happy that the airport instituted a noise complaint hotline several years ago.
But “16 helicopters in 16 minutes at 7 o’clock on a Monday morning is a bit much” to call in, she said, adding that helicopters should be routed over the ocean and then north to the airport over Georgica Pond.