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Apr 3, 2018 1:49 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

FAA Says East Hampton Was Right To Use Airport Funds For Legal Fees To Defend Curfews

The FAA ruled recently that East Hampton Town was allowed to use its airport fund to pay for the legal defense of curfews on flights at the airport, even though the restrictions were ultimately found to be outside the town's authority to impose. MIchael Wright
Apr 3, 2018 3:42 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration last week ruled that East Hampton Town had been within its rights in using airport funding to finance the multimillion-dollar legal defense of curfews it imposed in 2015.

A group of aviation industry groups had challenged the town’s right to use airport funds to fight the barrage of lawsuits that followed the 2014 adoption of restrictions on flights into East Hampton Airport.

Over three years, the town spent some $2 million on legal and consulting fees defending the airport in court and conducting research to support the need for flight restrictions. That money came from the airport’s operating fund, which the town substantially boosted over the same time period through higher usage fees and lease rates at the airport property.

But the aviation groups said using that money violated the requirements that had come with millions in FAA grants for upgrades to the airport. The federal agency disagreed, even though federal courts found that the town was not within its authority in imposing the new rules in the first place.

“An airport sponsor may incur legal costs by enacting management or operational actions which may ultimately be found to be contrary to the airport’s federal obligations, but that is part of operating an airport,” the FAA wrote in its March 26 ruling. “This is true if the actions by the airport sponsor are perceived as ‘wrong’ by some or ‘right’ by others.”

The use of airport funding had become an issue during last fall’s election campaign, with ultimately unsuccessful Republican candidates saying the incumbent Democrats had acted irresponsibly and put the town taxpayers on the hook for having to pay back the millions in fees. Board members said they had been reassured by legal counsel that they were on sound footing, and this week celebrated the vindication.

“The director’s determination validated what we have known all along—the town has every right to use airport revenue to take legal actions or defend against them,” said Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who had been the airport’s liaison during the four-year effort to craft, impose and defend the curfews.

The curfews were in place through the summers of 2015 and 2016 and tracking of flights showed that the restrictions reduced the number of helicopter flights into the airport, essentially eliminated early-morning and late-night flights and nudged charter companies toward using quieter aircraft in general.

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