The East Hampton Airport Planning Committee’s noise subcommittee has offered a set of preliminary recommendations to the Town Board, offering ways to turn down the volume on the noise issue—including reducing or even eliminating helicopter traffic.
Even though it hasn’t submitted its final recommendations to the board, the noise subcommittee is recommending limiting the number of flights, types of aircraft and hours of operation in an effort to reduce noise complaints. Its first recommendation to help mitigate noise would be to classify aircraft by noise level, and to stringently regulate the noisiest aircraft—or even prohibit them outright.
Helicopters, which the subcommittee said are the aircraft that create the most disturbance for residents on the ground, are the highest priority either to be “eliminated entirely or reduced drastically,” according to the subcommittee’s memorandum dated October 28, obtained by The Press.
When reached last week by phone, Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, blasted the recommendations, calling them “just the latest example of the Town Board simply not understanding basic facts of what it is doing and the impacts banning flights will have to the local economy.”
Kathy Cunningham, a member of the subcommittee, said last week that the recommendations are just a range of options the Town Board can consider, a wish list of sorts. “They’re not based in data so much, but based on what we understand other airports are doing in other parts of the country,” she said.
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said on Friday that everyone’s comments will be considered before the Town Board makes any decision on noise abatement.
“Nobody should jump to any conclusions until the Town Board makes a proposal,” he said. “It’s really premature to conclude that the town has come to any decision when there will be ample opportunity to review it.”
With the unlikelihood that the Town Board will renew its grant assurances with the Federal Aviation Administration at the end of this year, what’s on the horizon for the airport is on the minds of all who have a stake in it.
If the town does not accept the federal money, that would clear the way for the Town Board to impose restrictions on traffic to mitigate noise at the airport, which has been a highly contentious issue, not only in East Hampton, but in Southampton and across the North Fork.
To get to the point of making a decision about how best to deal with noise, the Town Board needs to finish its airport noise analysis. Last week, the Town Board hired Harris, Miller, Miller & Hanson of Massachusetts to conduct the second phase of its East Hampton Airport noise analysis.
The noise subcommittee recommended to the Town Board that aircraft utilizing East Hampton Airport should be classified as “least noisy,” “noisy,” and “noisiest.” Each level would be defined by FAA noise ratings: 80 decibels and above for the “noisiest,” which would include most helicopters and jets; 75 to 80 dBA for “noisy,” which generally includes a few helicopters, quieter jets and some piston aircraft; and below 75 dBA for the “least noisy,” which covers most light aircraft and some very quiet jets.
Aircraft that are not quite as loud as helicopters but too noisy to operate without any restriction, the subcommittee said, should be limited to no more than three takeoffs and landings per hour when the airport is open.
Banning commercial operations, or at least restricting the number of commercial businesses operating at the airport to three takeoffs and landings per hour, could decrease disturbance, because those operations would be more spread out over time, according to the subcommittee.
“Aircraft operations peak just at the time when the demand for quiet enjoyment is at its highest,” the memorandum reads. “We note the high levels of complaints Friday evenings, Sunday evenings and Monday mornings, when commuter operations are at their peak.”
The subcommittee said the Town Board should consider a nighttime curfew like the one at the heliport in Southampton Village, which doesn’t allow traffic to fly in or out from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Another recommendation would be to set airport operating hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and establish a weekend curfew of 8 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, when flights would not be allowed in or out of the airport.
According to the subcommittee, the 1989 Airport Master Plan called for a curfew, but it wasn’t implemented because the FAA objected to it. The grant assurances expire after December 31, and if the town does not renew them, it can go forward with a curfew.
Limiting the amount of traffic from noon Friday to noon Monday during the summer season by prohibiting touch-and-gos, which is when a pilot touches down at the airport and uses the same runway to depart, usually during training, should also be considered, the subcommittee said.
While the subcommittee didn’t reach a consensus on which path the Town Board should take, it does plan to have a final set of findings and specific recommendations for the board to consider by the end of November, according to the subcommittee’s memorandum.
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, liaison to the airport, said the Town Board is working to find a solution to the noise that has plagued East Hampton and surrounding communities for years. She said that after completing the second phase of the noise analysis, the town will have enough data on which to base possible restrictions.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the study’s objective will be to define the problem and recommend a refined list of alternatives that could address the issue. Harris, Miller, Miller & Hanson will collect and analyze the most recent 12 months of complaint data and will discuss its results at the December 2 Town Board work session.
According to the firm’s analysis proposal, using complaint data will give a “highly informative” basis for researching noise issues.
“Considering patterns within complaint statistics that induce multiple reports for an individual operation, time period or set of circumstances, is a particularly revealing basis for identifying problems of primary concern that are most worthy of addressing,” the proposal states.
The first phase of the noise analysis cost $60,000, and the second phase will cost $40,000. The money to pay for both phases will come out of the airport fund, which is self-funded and does not use taxpayer money.
“It is our intention to adopt whatever lawful measures we can to ensure the peace, quiet, tranquility and health of communities affected by airport noise,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “We are also committed to following a transparent and inclusive process to get there. We will thoroughly consider all points of view before we take action.”
It’s like a juggling act, Ms. Cunningham said of the subcommittee’s recommendations. The town and the public will have to weigh the costs and benefits of each recommendation before making a move. And if the Town Board forgoes the FAA grant assurances in the new year, it has to be sure the airport can sustain itself financially.
“Our meaningful reductions of noise will not occur unless the airport can remain financially independent,” she said.
Mr. Riegelhaupt, of the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, said the subcommittee ignores the financial implications of limiting traffic at the airport.
“What’s most troubling about this plan is if the curfew and slots systems are put in place, the town will lose an estimated 500 visitors per day, or 1,500 visitors per weekend, or roughly 24,000 for the summer,” he said. “Even a conservative estimate would show a loss of approximately $36 million for the local economy. And, even if you use the town’s numbers, which are laughably low, the town still ends up losing 12,000 people for the summer or $18 million in revenue. Implementing a slot system or eliminating aircraft will have a devastating impact on the local economy.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the town has repaved a taxiway at the airport and that Baseline King Corporation will soon install new lighting on another taxiway.
Additionally, the Town Board has hired Quantum Spatial to identify any obstacles that could make arrival and departure at the airport dangerous.
Michael Baker Engineering is also in the process of developing a plan and cost estimate of what it would take to design and build deer fencing around the entire property, install a weather station, create dedicated approach and departure procedures for helicopters and develop a comprehensive and prioritized five-year airport capital improvement program.
“With our new consulting engineer … we are now engaged in a deliberate and thoughtful effort to ensure that our airport meets professional standards,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said.