Several aviation companies, along with the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, filed a lawsuit last week against the Federal Aviation Administration, in addition to a complaint alleging that East Hampton Town has mismanaged the airport.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, January 29, challenges the FAA’s ability to waive grant assurances that had been blocking the East Hampton Town Board from restricting access at the airport by certain aircraft. The complaint, meanwhile, asks the FAA to direct the town to resolve “critical safety and security gaps” at the airport.
To deal with community concerns about noise, the East Hampton Town Board is considering curfews on takeoffs and landings at the airport, and limiting access by certain types of aircraft considered the worst noise generators. Both steps would be taken after grant assurances from the FAA, which prevented the town from setting such local restrictions, expired in December.
Those grant assurances obligated the town to follow the FAA’s guidelines at the airport. The grant assurances had been set to expire in 2021, but the FAA waived them as part of an agreement in a 2005 court case, allowing them to expire at the end of 2014. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed last week, claim that the FAA had no legal right to waive the grant assurances.
Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, said the group’s hand was forced by the town.
“Our coalition is eager to work with the town, the FAA and our fellow residents to help resolve complaints related to noise, but we won’t do it in a way that compromises safety or violates federal law,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the town has refused to change course, and we are forced to take these and future actions to ensure that the airport remains safe, secure and operational.”
The Friends of the East Hampton Airport, Analar Corporation of New Jersey, Helicopter Association International of Virginia, Heliflite Shares of New Jersey, Liberty Helicopters of New Jersey, and Shoreline Aviation of Connecticut are seeking a judgment in federal court, in the Eastern District of New York. They say that in a similar matter focusing on the Santa Monica Airport in California, a court ruled that the FAA “may not by agreement waive its statutory enforcement jurisdiction over future cases.”
The FAA has declined to comment, according to Jim Peters, a spokesman for the agency.
On Monday, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he was disappointed that talks between the town and the aviation community have seemingly failed. “I think it’s unfortunate that certain airport interests decided to begin the process with litigation as opposed to discussion, when the Town Board has yet to even make proposals or complete its work,” he said.
The coalition also claims that the airport has failed to remove hazardous obstructions at the airport, like trees; has failed to prevent the deterioration of various airport ramps; and must construct a deer fence and replace the entire 20-year-old lighting system on Taxiway A.
Peter Kirsch, the attorney representing the town on airport matters, said he could not comment on the litigation or the complaint, but Mr. Cantwell confirmed that the town is attempting to correct these issues.
“The town has taken several steps to make improvements at the airport concerning improvements for a taxiway, dealing with the issue of tree obstructions and the AWOS III weather system,” he said. “We’ve employed a consultant airport engineer to review a capital plan for the airport and to evaluate and prioritize improvements that are necessary, which we intend to move ahead with upon completion of that process.”
In the fall, the Town Board hired companies to complete a series of projects to install new edge lighting on Taxiway A; repave another taxiway; develop a scope of services and a fee estimate for deer fencing; complete a feasibility study on approach and departure procedures for helicopters; develop the AWOS system, a weather observation system; and develop a comprehensive five-year capital improvement program for the airport.
But Kathryn Slye, a pilot who flies her Cessna in and out of East Hampton Airport, said she agrees with the filed complaint and said the town’s recent attempts to correct issues at the airport are too late in coming.
“We’ve been very, very patient,” she said. “We’ve been asking and asking and asking for years. My concern is that we’ll see an accident happen … should that close the whole airport? I’ve been on takeoff—there is a critical point when you decide you’re going to take off or pull the power—and a turkey ran in front of my plane. Plenty of people come in for landings, and at the last minute they have to abort and do an evasive maneuver because there are three deer standing, sleeping or sitting in the middle [of the runway], because the runway is warmer. There was a fox that once wouldn’t leave, no matter what you did.”
Ms. Slye and the pilots whom the Friends of the East Hampton Airport represent say they feel threatened by possible new regulations on traffic at the airport, especially in light of new recommendations released by the airport’s noise subcommittee on January 20, which call for curfews and a ban on the noisiest type of helicopters. The proposal was based on information presented in two noise studies that were commissioned by the Town Board.
Mr. Rigelhaupt said pilots’ jobs are on the line. “Pilots are deeply concerned,” he said. “These are hard-working civilians and military veterans, many of whom live in the area and run local small businesses, trying to prevent the town from taking away their jobs. We understand there are noise concerns and want to find ways to work together. But the draconian actions recommended would be devastating to these people and their families if enacted.”
Ms. Slye said she is more concerned that the recommendations would propose a curfew on touch-and-go operations for pilot training, saying that cutting that opportunity will eliminate future generations of aviators. She said she learned to fly at age 40 at East Hampton Airport.
She said cutting touch-and-go operations wouldn’t solve the noise issue, because training is done in smaller, less noisy aircraft.
“The noise issue is one we take very seriously and have been working to resolve for years,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said. “We are disappointed by the fact that those opposing the airport aren’t interested in facts or solutions, only the phony and misleading noise study. We continue to be interested in finding a solution that benefits both the aviation community and those concerned about the noise from the airport. However, we have been put in the unfortunate position by the town that our only possible recourse is legal action.”