As of January 1, East Hampton Town will be free of Federal Aviation Administration oversight and able to set access restrictions at the East Hampton Airport, essentially opening the door for relief from often loud, and sometimes rattling, aircraft noise.
In 2001, the town accepted its last grant from the FAA; doing so obligated the town to follow FAA guidelines and restrictions for the next 20 years. In 2005, however, the FAA and the Committee To Stop Airport Expansion, while involved in litigation, reached a compromise settlement stipulating that four FAA grant assurances would expire at the end of 2014, thereby freeing the airport from certain access restrictions, unless the town were to accept new grants from the FAA.
This week, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the town would not be applying for any more grants, leaving the Town Board free to tackle the noise issue head on.
In September, the board pledged to put in place restrictions that would cut down noise stemming from aircraft. To that end, the town initiated an Airport Noise Analysis to explore ways to make the airport quieter.
“I think people have been supportive of the Town Board’s process of being open and studying the issue carefully with regard to noise, finances and possible restrictions, and doing it in an open and transparent way by inviting the public to review and comment on the information,” Mr. Cantwell said. “That has been the process these past nine months, and it’s all coming to a head.”
The Town Board is aiming to make a decision by February on how to curb noise.
According to attorney Peter Kirsch, who represents the town on airport matters, before any laws or controls are put in place, the Town Board must define the specific problem and come up with a specific solution to solve that problem in order to stand on solid legal ground.
While it is still too early to say what the board will do to reduce the number of complaints about helicopters, it is clear that they are the biggest problem.
Both of the town’s first and second phases of the airport noise analysis found that helicopters take the lead in prompting complaints filed by residents, so much so that helicopters were singled out in the problem definition that the town’s consultant Harris, Miller, Miller and Hanson drafted.
According to Young Environmental Sciences and Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, the town’s consultants for the first phase of its noise analysis, helicopters account for 68 percent of complaints about all the aircraft that fly in and out of the airport, although they make up only 33 percent of flight operations. The consultants concluded that helicopters were the most reported annoyance in each town from East Hampton and Southampton to Southold and Riverhead.
Approximately 24,000 noise complaints were recorded, from 633 households, from November 1, 2013, to October 31 of this year, according to the second phase of the report done by HMMH.
Ted Baldwin, a representative of HMMH, said that the complaints regarding helicopters increase at a faster rate than the rate of operations, meaning that there was more than one complaint per helicopter operation, whereas other aircraft typically received one per operation.
Les Blomberg of Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, who helped complete the first phase of the analysis, said that people were likely to complain about helicopter noise based not just on how loud it might be but on the nature of the noise. Helicopters can cause a buzzing noise, vibration or rattling at times.
However, that’s not to say that jets and seaplanes do not cause noise complaints, but helicopters produce the most disturbance based on both phases of the analysis.
Members of the aviation community, specifically the Friends of the East Hampton Airport Coalition, and Former Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who is now a paid consultant for the coalition, have been highly skeptical of the airport noise analysis, which could potentially be the impetus for a cut in aviation traffic at the airport.
Many of the noise-affected have called for an outright ban on helicopters, but how feasible that would be remains to be seen.
HMMH, during its presentation to the Town Board on December 2, said that officials should consider time-based restrictions—limiting the time of day and the days of the week when helicopters can depart and land. For example, the town could impose an evening, night or early morning curfew to cut down on disturbance. A seasonal restriction for certain types of aircraft also is possible; an all-out ban on helicopters is theoretically an option, though most likely not a reasonable one.
Other options exist—such as an actual ban on certain types of aircraft, a fee-based slot system or schedule, and voluntary agreements by pilots—but HMMH suggested further study before it officially recommends one option over the others.
That’s why on Thursday, December 18, the Town Board approved the third phase of the noise analysis, at a cost of $79,000, to further investigate other options, get to the bottom of the helicopter noise issue, and work with helicopter owners and pilots to flesh out possible voluntary approaches to decrease the number of complaints.
On Monday, Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said she wasn’t certain if she’d be in favor of banning or cutting down helicopter traffic.
“I’m still thinking about it, and I don’t know what the answer will be,” she said. “We are the proprietors, and we need to make sure, as proprietors, we do as best as we can and we take into account different user groups. The third phase is an important piece of the puzzle, so when we’re putting the pieces all together in the first part of February, we’ll be able to put this together so it’s in place by the upcoming season.”
If the Town Board decides to place a ban on helicopters, for example, or reduces flights in and out of the airport significantly, can the airport sustain itself?
According to the town’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, and Mr. Kirsch, it can.
The airport appears to be on solid financial ground. It has been supporting itself since 2001 without FAA grants, Mr. Kirsch noted. “The town has done a number of financial calculations and projections which also show that it could continue to operate and maintain the airport successfully in the future without the need for FAA grants,” he said.
And according to Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the airport liaison, the airport does not use property taxes to operate or pay for any capital improvements. In fact, the town could generate sufficient cash flow from airport operations and properties to pay debt service on bonds to finance approximately $5.6 million of capital expenditures over the next five years, according to the budget committee.
Peter Wadsworth, a member of the budget committee, said that the group considered a 10-percent increase in landing fees this year, the increase of 15 cents in the “fuel flowage” fee it collects from its fixed-base operators on site, and an increase in flight volume based on this year’s numbers.
Given a scenario where there would be a 66-percent reduction in helicopter flights in 2015, and no change in fees or traffic in the following years, the committee found that there still would be almost $5.6 million in debt capacity to support the airport.
“The bottom line is, after we used even more conservative assumptions and gave effect to the increases in landing and fuel flowage fees increased this summer after first report … there is a slightly larger $5.5 million debt capacity without taking into consideration revenue enhancements we had recommended,” Mr. Wadsworth said.
Loren Riegelhaupt, the spokesman for the Friends of the East Hampton Airport Coalition, said the numbers simply don’t add up. If the town cuts aviation traffic—the source of its revenue—how would it fund the airport?
“On one hand, the town says it will pay for the airport through an increase in taxes on the aviation community. On the other, it says it will dramatically cut the number of landings, thus significantly cutting revenue. You can’t have it both ways, as it makes absolutely zero economic sense,” he said. “Even the town’s own finance board has questioned this thinking. For a town that not that long ago was on the verge of bankruptcy, this is just not solid planning and should be deeply troubling for local taxpayers.”
Earlier this year, the town increased the fuel flowage fee, to the dismay of Sound Aircraft, one of the town’s fixed-based operators, which promptly filed a lawsuit to reverse the decision. The case is still pending.
The increase was the first of many efforts by the town to bring in additional revenue. Landing fees were increased soon after, by 10 percent, and now the town is considering a number of different revenue streams.
Last week, at a Town Board work session, Mr. Wadsworth and fellow budget committee member Arthur Malman recommended introducing paid parking at the airport, leasing land for additional hangar space, upgrading fuel operations, and improving its collection of landing fees to bring in more money. The committee estimates that by just adding paid parking and leasing out land for hangar rentals, about $1.4 million could be brought in over the next five years.
Ms. Overby said that the town was well on its way to finding the most appropriate ways to continue funding the airport.
“I think what has been put together in different studies has been very helpful and given us insight to where we needed to have professionals look at what is really going on in the airport while adhering to town code,” she said. “I think that’s what is getting done right now. We can start to gauge now what having [fewer] aircraft means for the bottom-line goal of having an airport paid for by users of the airport—which makes sense to me. If I own a horse, I don’t want taxpayers having to pay for a place to put the horse.”
Mr. Cantwell said his first priority would be to market the airport’s vacant land in its industrial park sites to attract and create jobs and businesses there.
“It may be a longer-term commitment, leasing and getting the buildings built and creating jobs,” he said. “That’s probably the most important and there’s multiple benefits to that.”
In any case, Mr. Cantwell recognizes that all eyes are on the Town Board. Any move it makes has to be supported by facts and that’s precisely what it’s out to find.
“The arrows are in the bow and pointed at us, legally, so I think the Town Board is going to be careful, methodical and open to everyone’s input,” he said.
“I think the Town Board deserves some credit for searching out the facts over the past nine months. The Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, which is composed of independently minded and financially astute people with representation from both sides of the airport issue, found, indeed, that even with a substantial reduction in traffic, the airport can generate enough cash to do improvements over the next three to five years.”