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Sep 26, 2017 5:44 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East Hampton Campaign Kicks Into High Gear, With Airport Once Again At The Fore

Sep 26, 2017 5:44 PM

The Republican challengers to the Democrats’ majority on the East Hampton Town Board started the campaign off in earnest in recent days as GOP candidates criticized the current board’s approach to noise concerns at the airport as well as its support for an offshore wind farm.

On Monday, Republican council candidate Paul Giardina unveiled the results of an independent telephone poll, commissioned by his campaign, of 200 East Hampton Town voters that showed water quality and septic pollution of local bays as being the most broadly concerning issue, with more than 70 percent of those asked responding that both were a “serious concern.” The airport and the noise it generates was at the bottom of the list of 13 topics raised by the pollsters, though nearly half the respondents did say the issue was of serious or some concern to them.

In between those two were beach erosion in Montauk, government ethics, affordable housing and the heroin epidemic.

Despite not being at the top of the heap of concerns for most residents, the airport once again appears to be in line to be the marquee issue of the campaign, or at least the brightest line of division between the parties.

In 2015, with the town-imposed curfews just months old and a legal battle over them in full swing, the airport was the hottest topic, fed largely by hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from charter helicopter companies and well-heeled opponents of airport traffic. The Democrats rode their efforts to assert local control over the airport to landslide victories and a supermajority on the Town Board.

The Republicans, hoping that voter sentiments are wavering as the fight drags on, came out swinging at last week’s Town Board work session on the town’s consideration of a years-long application process to the FAA seeking curfews and other restrictions intended to lessen the impact of airport noise on surrounding neighborhoods.

Council candidate Jerry Larsen and supervisor candidate Manny Vilar reminded the board, and audience, that the town still faces a lawsuit from charter helicopter companies that, among other things, challenges the town’s right to use airport funding to pay for the hundreds of thousands in legal fees it has rung up defending the curfews it imposed, without FAA approval, in 2015. If the FAA should rule that the town could not use that money, the town would have to repay the airport fund with general fund revenues raised from taxes. The two Republican candidates questioned whether the town should be moving toward another multimillion-dollar, multi-year effort to rein in air traffic.

“They’ve been saying this fight isn’t going to cost the taxpayers a dime, but they’ve never said that there is a chance it could cost taxpayers a lot of money,” Mr. Larsen said this week. “If they did say that, maybe the residents of the town wouldn’t be as open to their continuing this fight.”

Their opponents, incumbent Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who is running for supervisor, say that they’ve been advised by a number of legal sources that they are on solid ground with the past spending, and that future spending on an FAA application is something other airport operators have commonly paid for with their operational revenues. The current board has pledged to halt taking funding from the FAA because grant assurances that come with it tie the town’s hands in terms of town control over the operations of the airport. The last grant assurances on the airport now expire in 2021. In the meantime, the board has ramped up fees at the airport and rents for commercial properties around its edges, to fund both the legal fight and repairs and upgrades at the facility.

Mr. Larsen and Mr. Vilar both say that they think the town needs to find a way to reduce noise impacts from the airport, though they differ slightly on how they see it happening.

Mr. Vilar said he thinks the town should embark on the FAA application but work with aviation groups and residents first to tailor the restrictions applied for to suit as many of the interested parties as possible—an approach the current board is also headed toward.

“I get it, the aviation noise, the pollution, it’s got to be reduced, but we can make a deal,” Mr. Vilar said of the Town Board’s approach if he and his running mates are elected. “There is a sense of urgency, we have to bring some relief sooner than later. So, yes, we’ll have new rules, but it’s going to be something that captures the broadest base possible, something both the users and neighbors can live with.”

Mr. Larsen said he thinks the FAA application is unlikely to succeed and recommended that the town instead focus on negotiations with aviation companies for voluntary restrictions, with the specter of the airport being permanently closed after the 2021 grants expire if something does not change drastically.

“We have good leverage to negotiate with the pilots—either get the airport under control or the airport closes,” Mr. Larsen said. “But we need reasonable restrictions: voluntary curfews, alternate the flight paths to have helicopters coming in at different angles on the clock so they’re not going over the same person’s house all the time.”

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that attempts at negotiations with the helicopter companies have proven fruitless over and over, and said that with nothing to force them to comply with restrictions that may eat into their profits, few will do so.

“Voluntary restrictions won’t work and none of them are going to engage in that conversation because they don’t have to,” he said. “They’d rather just keep making tons of money.”

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez nodded to other airport operators—the cities of Naples, Florida, and Burbank and Los Angeles, California—that have embarked on FAA applications like the one the town is considering and noted that most if not all have used airport funds to pay for the six-figure legal fees associated with the applications.

The Republicans have also made it clear that they want to be seen as the skeptics in the campaign when it comes to supporting the Deepwater Wind offshore wind energy project planned by LIPA southeast of Block Island. Indeed, with the exception of Democratic council candidate Jeff Bragman, their Democratic opponents say that large-scale renewable power is a must for the region and that in the absence of particularly pressing evidence about environmental harm from offshore turbines, they see the Deepwater project as the right step in the right direction.

The project has prompted concern among commercial fishermen about the long-term impacts it may have on fish migrations, and all three Republicans have said they are in favor of renewable energy but do not support the Deepwater project moving forward as planned.

“I’m 100 percent committed to shifting to renewable energy, I don’t know why anybody would not be, but we need to make sure we do best by all of our people,” Mr. Vilar said. “I think this project needs to be thought through more. I’ve looked for the conclusive studies, and there aren’t any, that’s the problem. If Deepwater is right about the impacts, then the commercial fishermen have nothing to worry about. If they’re wrong, it’s going to severely impact a lot of livelihoods.

“This can’t be an issue of passion, it has to be facts,” he added. “We only have one opportunity to not destroy an ecosystem.”

Mr. Bragman has also said he remains circumspect about the Deepwater project, and about its potential for impacts on the fishing industry, although he acknowledged that with the approvals for the project almost entirely in the hands of state and federal authorities, the Town Board will have limited influence over whether the project proceeds in a general sense.

“I think we need to be looking closer to home, at small solutions like solar and battery packs that can help shave the peak demand down,” Mr. Bragman said.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that he is comfortable that the studies being conducted in the runup to the Deepwater project will avoid potential harm to the fishing industry, but said that where the project directly interacts with the town’s jurisdiction—the power cable’s approach to land—the board should assert its authority, as it already has in urging a shift to the oceanfront instead of Gardiners Bay as a landing site for the cable.

“The choices for LIPA were offshore wind or more overhead transmission lines from fossil fuel plans upisland—and you saw how people out here reacted to the new transmission lines,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, nodding to the uproar over new lines installed in 2012 between East Hampton Village and Amagansett, which set off protests and lawsuits from residents’ groups. “How do you think people would react to metal lattice transmission lines through the farm fields of Bridgehampton?”

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