It’s been nearly 20 years since attorney David Gruber—a longtime member of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee, and a member of the Committee To Stop Airport Expansion who has done legal work for the organization, pro bono—first approached the Town Board about the issue of noise surrounding East Hampton Airport.
Since then, Mr. Gruber has been involved in several lawsuits against the town regarding the airport, and has publicly spoken out against the board’s decision to continually accept money from the Federal Aviation Administration, which the town cited as a reason new restrictions couldn’t be imposed on airport operations.
Today, David Gruber serves as chair of the town’s Airport Noise Subcommittee, the panel largely responsible for drafting recommendations to limit airport operations starting in 2015, which the Town Board is currently considering. But Mr. Gruber’s history of activism where the airport is concerned has left some raising questions about his motives.
“Even to the fairest person, it’s problematic,” Dominick Stanzione, former Town Board member and liaison to the airport, said of Mr. Gruber’s position on the committee. “[The Committee To Stop Airport Expansion] had a strong influence over airport operations, unfortunately, during my time on the board.”
Recently, the Noise Subcommittee recommended that the town identify “noisy” aircraft and enact a series of tougher new restrictions, including curfews and limits on operations. The noisiest aircrafts—including most helicopters—would essentially be banned on summer weekends and holidays, and limited to a single trip in and out of the airport each week from May to October. It would potentially be a death knell for the growing use of the airport by commuters who fly back and forth from Manhattan to East Hampton by helicopter, using crowd-sourced operations like Blade.
The stringent recommendations, said former Town Board member and airport liaison Diana Weir, show Mr. Gruber’s true desire: to eventually stop all air traffic coming in and out of East Hampton, forcing the airport to close.
“It’s, like, having a popular restaurant on a main street,” she said. “And the restaurant is great, but we don’t love the people who go in and out, so we’re going to close it during the busiest times and essentially starve it of money. The airport needs to be here to sustain our summer economy. The examples are numerous of what a bad idea this is.”
But Mr. Gruber said the accusations that he is, in some way, attempting to close the airport are “just completely untrue.”
“If anyone had attended the meetings of the Noise Subcommittee that I chair and listened to the conversation, you’d know that we bent over backward in every imaginable way to make sure the airport would be self-sustaining without grants,” he said.
“My intention has never been to close the airport. I first complained to the town in 1994 or 1995 about the issue of touch-and-go helicopters and that problem has been largely solved. The rest of it is not because it’s my personal problem but because I believe profoundly that if democracy works, the people who live in the town should get what kind of airport they want. And democracy hasn’t worked that well so far.”
As for his prior legal battles with the town, Mr. Gruber contends they aren’t as relevant as others make them out to be. “Sound Aircraft sued the town, too,” he said, referring to a commercial operation at the airport. “Sound Aircraft is in the midst of suing the town right now—and they’re on the committee. And there are other people [on the subcommittee] that have sued the town. The fact is, I don’t have a personal stake in this.”
But Elliot Meisel, a member of the East Hampton Aviation Association, maintains that the issue is a personal one for Mr. Gruber, saying he is politically and financially tied to Town Board member Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the current airport liaison. “He contributed to her campaign, [and] vice versa,” said Mr. Meisel
“I’m a member of the East Hampton Democratic Party campaign committee and I’ve helped manage campaigns for all the candidates including hers,” Mr. Gruber countered. “It’s just kind of a silly accusation.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said any suggestion of a conspiracy is “ridiculous and absolutely ludicrous.”
“David was voted as chair by the committee,” she said. “It’s not like I appointed him.”
Furthermore, she said, the committee has never discussed any attempt to shut down the airport.
“I think David’s been the ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ target,” she said. “Nobody wants to shut it down. Of course, if we can’t get any regulations to make it more neighborhood-friendly, that’s what gives rise to angry denunciations and remarks that make it sound like that. It becomes a nuisance, like a swimming pool without a fence. But, no—shutting it down has never been on the table.”