The East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday increased to nearly $1 million the total amount of money it has dedicated this year to the legal fight over its management of East Hampton Airport.
With town officials heading to New York City on Wednesday to take part in a mediation session with an aviation industry group that has sued the town over airport restrictions, the board voted to increase the spending limit for its primary legal counsel in a half-dozen legal actions regarding the airport by $450,000, bring the total amount allocated to $875,000 for the year. The firm, Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, has already billed the town for $694,000 in legal work this year alone, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said on Tuesday.
The town has also alloted up to $100,000 for attorney Kathleen Sullivan, who is acting as the town’s legal counsel for the appeal of a federal injunction of a law adopted by the town that barred any single aircraft from making more than one takeoff and landing at the airport in a given week. Ms. Sullivan is also defending an appeal by the aviation group of two other laws setting curfews on the use of the airport.
The town spent approximately $226,000 on legal fees for airport issues in 2014.
The funding for the legal fees comes from the town's airport accounts, which are funded by airport operations fees, a step that the aviation groups have also raised issue with.
“While we anticipated that there would be lawsuits,” Mr. Burke-Gonzalez said at the Town Board work session on Tuesday morning, “it’s unfortunate that these airport users are forcing the town to spend airport funds to defend these restrictions rather than working cooperatively to help us achieve the best balance between users and residents.”
The town faces a federal lawsuit brought by a group representing and funded by aviation industry interests, the Friends of East Hampton Airport, as well as three separate cases brought by aviation companies or representatives claiming the town violated the requirements of past Federal Aviation Administration grants by enacting restrictions or raising fees, as well as a state court lawsuit brought by Sound Aircraft, the sole fuel supplier at East Hampton Airport, over increases in fuel and landing fees. Ms. Gonzalez said that the town has also petitioned to become a party to a lawsuit filed by the aviation industry group against the FAA.
Friends of the East Hampton Airport spokesman Loren Reigelhaupt countered Ms. Burke-Gonzalez's characterization of the various legal challenges.
"It¹s disappointing and frustrating to hear such claims, as many of the residents are in fact airport users too and we have always been open to talking about rational solutions," he said in a statement. "The truth is, if town leaders had invested in the upkeep and safety of the airport and not passed illegal bans, there would no need for any of this."
Also on Tuesday, board members reviewed reports on usage of the airport this summer. According to airport manager Jemille Charlton, the number of flights into and out of the airport increased by 14 percent overall in July—including a 20-percent jump in the number of helicopter flights—and by 7 percent in August, compared to 2014 levels. Through the end of July, the total usage of the airport had swelled by 29 percent.
Complaints about airplane noise received by the town in July were up 21 percent from 2014, Mr. Charlton said, though he noted that the actual number of households from where complaints were received actually declined by 6 percent that same month. For the year, thus far, complaints about aircraft noise are up nearly 60 percent, despite the curfews imposed this summer.