The East Hampton Town Board has asked state lawmakers to give town residents the opportunity to block future town officials from accepting federal grants for East Hampton Airport.
Just days before the town filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking to have curfews on flights to the airport reinstated, the board on Thursday, March 2, authorized a home rule request letter to the State Legislature in support of new legislation. The proposal would assure that before the town could enter into any grant agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration that would bind the town to federal airport guidance for 10 years or more, opponents would have the opportunity to call for a permissive referendum.
A permissive referendum is a commonly included—but extraordinarily rarely ever applied—clause in many municipal agreements, especially those in which a town or village is pledging to borrow large sums of money. The clause requires that, once a law or action is approved by a village, town or county government, residents have 30 days to file a petition challenging it. The petition must have at least as many signatures as 5 percent of the total votes cast in the municipality for candidates for governor in the most recent state elections—likely only a matter of a few hundred signatures in the case of East Hampton Town.
If a suitable petition is filed, the town would have to schedule a special referendum, through which the proposed measure would be approved or rejected by a majority of votes cast.
By imposing such a requirement, the sitting Town Board members could make it harder for future elected officials to abandon the current policy of not accepting grant money from the FAA for the maintenance of the airport, and avoiding the decades-long federal requirements on airport operations they carry with them.
Since assuming power in 2013 the current five members of the board have pledged to halt the use of FAA funds. Between 1990 and 2001, the town took nearly $10 million in FAA grants for maintenance and upgrade work at the airport. The last of those grants still binds the town to many FAA requirements through the year 2022.
Instead, the current board has sought to increase revenues from the airport by raising landing and refueling fees, leasing out large chunks of airport land for light industrial uses, and upping the rent for longtime tenants. Along with long-term borrowing for costly projects, like the $1 million new fuel farm to be installed this spring, the board has said the airport should be more than able to self-fund its long-term maintenance.
The town has spent more than $1 million on legal fees in the last two years and consultants fighting to protect curfews that it says reduced the noise impact on residents across the region early in the morning and late at night. The legal fees were funded from airport revenues.
This is the second time the town has asked state representatives to impose the potential block on its own lawmakers. Bills introduced by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle last year failed, even though the legislature approved bills asking that the town be allowed to extend the length of time it could take out bonds for capital projects at the airport.
Mr. Thiele said he thinks other state lawmakers found the trigger for the referendum too broadly worded, allowing residents to halt any agreements at all with the FAA. The newer bills would open only grant agreements that would bind the town to FAA assurances for 10 years or more to the permissive referendum challenge.
“These airport agreements bind the town over long periods of time, very similarly to bond resolutions, and those are subject to permissive referendums,” Mr. Thiele said. “So we’re hoping with those language changes we’ll have more success this year.”