On Thursday, the East Hampton Town Board will field public comments on its first major attempt to combat longstanding noise complaints surrounding the operations of East Hampton Airport. Being proposed are four stringent regulations that include severe restrictions on helicopter traffic starting this summer.
But they will do so without a key piece of the puzzle: a planned report that would determine if the airport can remain financially viable if the new restrictions are enacted.
Members of the town’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, or BFAC, had promised the report in time for the hearing. But its members admitted Monday that after working on the issue for weeks, they have not been able to agree on definitive numbers.
“The committee has been unable to reach a consensus on a five-year earnings and cash flow forecast if the proposed rules are implemented,” BFAC Chairman Arthur Malman informed the Town Board in a memo on Monday, March 2.
As of Tuesday, the Town Board still expected to hold the hearing on Thursday, March 5, at 4:30 p.m. at LTV Studios in Wainscott.
But town officials have already heard from one group: Pilots and aviation companies have blasted the proposed rules as “draconian” and based on skewed data. The East Hampton Aviation Association, which represents many local pilots, went one step further, charging that if the Town Board enacts the regulations as written, it would mean certain death for the facility.
The town’s own Aviation Operations Subcommittee agrees, concluding that the new restrictions, combined with a failure to maintain key parts of the airport infrastructure, are a “strong indication that there is an agenda by some to push the airport toward closure.”
Opponents of the new regulations seized on the committee’s failure to deliver as a sign that the new rules—which would identify “noisy” aircraft and impose new restrictions and curfews, essentially eliminating helicopter traffic in the summer—should be rejected.
The committee’s inaction “on this deeply misguided proposal confirms the true economic hazards of the plan and the Town Board’s blatant disregard for these risks,” said Loren Riegelhaupt, who heads the Friends of the East Hampton Airport Coalition.
Key questions remain about whether East Hampton Airport can remain self-sufficient in the wake of reduced operations resulting from the new regulations, but also with the cost of lawsuits that are nearly guaranteed to challenge the new rules if the Town Board approves them.
Moreover, airport advocates challenge the very basis for the tough new restrictions—the 24,000 noise complaints received by the town last year. They point out that only 633 households submitted complaints, and two households alone generated nearly 5,000 complaints between them.
Elliott Meisel, a member of the East Hampton Aviation Association, said he expects the town will face a lengthy and costly legal battle if it moves forward.
“They are clearly discriminatory against classes of aircraft and don’t bear a direct relationship to the cause of noise,” he said this week. “They are far beyond what is necessary to mitigate the noise.”
If the Town Board approves the restrictions, there would be a curfew banning all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., year-round. Aircraft labeled as “noisy” would face a stricter curfew and not be permitted to take off or land from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. year-round.
There would be a complete ban on helicopter operations during holidays and weekends between May 1 and September 30, and more limits on “noisy” aircraft, which would be allowed only one takeoff and landing per week between May and September.
The Town Board proposes that “noisy” aircraft would be defined as any airplane or helicopter that has an Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels (EPNdB) approach level of 91.0 or greater based on noise characteristics published by the Federal Aviation Administration or the European Aviation Safety Agency. A subway train, motorcycle or lawnmower can be as loud as 91.0 EPNdB. Only heavy aircraft like jets and commercial helicopters are required to have an EPNdB noise rating.
Those aircraft that do not have an EPNdB rating would not be labeled as “noisy.” This was a revision to the original proposal, and it’s designed to exclude lighter single- and twin-engine general aviation and commercial aircraft that use the airport but are rarely the cause of noise complaints.
Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the East Hampton Town Board member serving as a liaison to the airport, and a driving force behind the effort to combat noise, acknowledged that the proposed restrictions were revised because the initial proposal was too complicated and “created too much legal vulnerability.”
Most helicopters, and larger turbo propeller airplanes and bigger jets, would surpass the 91.0 EPNdB limit and would not be allowed more than one takeoff and one landing per week between May and September. They also would be banned from flying into the airport on summer weekends, between noon Thursdays and noon Mondays—essentially eliminating the growing use of East Hampton Airport for frequent trips back and forth to Manhattan in season via helicopter.
The restrictions would not affect seaplanes, since they are considered lighter aircraft and are not required to have an EPNdB noise rating.
The consensus is that helicopter traffic is the primary source of noise complaints. According to the town’s consultant, Harris, Miller, Miller and Hanson, or HMMH, the regulations specifically target helicopters—nearly 76 percent of annual helicopter operations would be affected, and 87 percent of helicopter complaints would be addressed, they say. In total, the proposed regulations would affect 24 percent of all operations at the East Hampton Airport, while addressing 67 percent of all complaints, the consultants say.
Liberty Helicopter, a business based in New Jersey that frequently flies clients to and from East Hampton, may have to make big cuts to its operations if the new laws are enacted, said Pat Day, director of operations, estimating that he’d have to cut at least 20 percent of his pilots.
“To me it’s just not possible. I just don’t see how we can run a viable commercial business [with these new regulations],” he said in a telephone interview. “The town’s ultimate goal is to put everybody out of business. We worked to create a viable company and hire people for jobs that allow them to earn a good living.”
Liberty Helicopter is one of several businesses that filed a lawsuit against the FAA in February to dispute its ability to waive grant assurances—an action that ushered in the Town Board’s decision to propose access restrictions.
“We got a lot of face time with the town, but they don’t see the kind of impact this will have,” he said. “The summer is when Liberty makes some money. The first four months of the year we’re in the red, then all of a sudden in July and August is when we finally begin to put some money away.”
Cindy Herbst, the owner of Sound Aircraft Services Inc., an airport-based business that provides fuel and rents parking spaces to transient aircraft, said she is certain the proposed restrictions would “bring the company to its knees,” because it would restrict its customer base significantly.
“These are far-reaching restrictions,” she said. “It is hard to determine the effect, other than knowing that more than 50 percent of our revenue is going to be reduced.”
She said she expects not to hire as many people as usual this summer. Her seasonal employees are typically college-aged kids who save money for college or college loans. “After 25 years, this totally sucks,” she said. “There is not a fallback when this is your life.”
Kathy Cunningham, a member of the town’s Airport Noise Subcommittee and the executive director of the Quiet Skies Coalition, sees one possible unintended consequence: The helicopter clients might instead switch to seaplanes, which offer a similar service for a comparable price.
“The concern is that people taking helicopters can easily transition to seaplanes,” she said. “The regulations would mean more than a 70-percent reduction in helicopters. What portion of that seaplanes will fill in, we’ll see. It’s a little bit alarming, because seaplanes are exempt from the one round trip per week rule, which is important.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenge will be identifying the fiscal impact of the new regulations—something the town’s BFAC has been working to do. Committee members had said they would propose a funding scheme that allows the airport to maintain its self-sufficiency, even with tough new restrictions in place.
Clearly, that has proven difficult.
The committee had released preliminary reports last year, in April and December, and both offered several scenarios that appeared to allow the airport to weather the financial impact of the new rules for at least five years, even if helicopter traffic were to be eliminated. The committee suggested new revenue opportunities for the airport, such as instituting parking fees and expanding the commercial footprint of the airport complex to offset reductions in revenue due to lost air traffic.
But while those scenarios included some consideration for the cost of capital projects, they excluded a key expense: the anticipated cost of legal challenges resulting from the enactment of the new restrictions.
Mr. Malman said this week that the committee has made no judgment on the appropriateness of the proposed airport restrictions. But faced with an estimated $7 million of capital costs over five years, plus $3 million for the anticipated cost of litigation, its members were unable to find a way for the airport to remain self-sufficient. He said “a significant number of members of the committee” believe there are simply too many variables, and more research is needed.
With an expected 24-percent reduction in operations, it is clear that less money would flow into the airport. In 2014, the airport took in more than $3 million in fuel fees and almost $1.7 million in landing fees, which provided the bulk of revenue for a budget of less than $4.6 million. For 2015, the budget rises to nearly $4.9 million, though the new restrictions could severely cut revenues.
Most municipal airports rely heavily on government grants to cover the major costs associated with maintaining an airport. But because the town broke ties with the FAA in its effort to combat noise, the airport is no longer eligible for millions in FAA funds.
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said Tuesday that the two earlier BFAC reports “are still valid,” though they excluded potential litigation costs, and the committee’s projections did not line up with the town’s projections of impact on airport traffic. He added, “I think the reports they’ve given us are valuable, and I don’t think the lack of their ability to find consensus on these exact restrictions will hold us back.”
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national pilot advocacy group based in Maryland, is closely watching the situation and says the town should allocate “a lot” for legal costs because it is “likely to get sued over this.”
“Federal law requires equal access to appropriate categories and class of aircraft,” said Bill Dunn, an AOPA adviser. “There’s an economic impact, a loss of jobs involved. If the aircraft don’t come in anymore, people are going to lose their jobs at the airport, restaurants and hotels. I feel that this is going to be litigated.”
He said that a similar case in Santa Monica in 2011 ran up $2 million in legal costs, which was double what the city had expected.
The airport has been supporting itself and not using FAA grants since 2001, according to town officials, and doesn’t use property taxes to operate or pay for any capital improvements. The airport’s operating surplus was $1.7 million as of February 4.
But during that same time period, little has been done on capital improvements identified by the airport master plan, and maintenance has been deferred as well. The airport’s second runway, 4-22, is in such disrepair that it is used only as a taxiway.
The $3 million in litigation expenses that is now part of the BFAC’s analysis is based on the advice of Peter Kirsch, the attorney representing the town in airport matters, according to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez.
“We spoke to Peter Kirsch, and that was the number he felt most comfortable with based on who he thinks will come forward with a lawsuit or administrative action,” she said. “This includes all legal fees and what it would cost if tried locally using a local attorney. This is all-in.”
Mr. Kirsch said he could not comment on who might sue and where the restrictions would place the town if they were adopted. “We believe we’ve done everything lawfully,” he said. “The town intends to vigorously defend any litigation.”
There is an existing claim, from Sound Aircraft, which filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court last October, alleging that East Hampton Town violated the terms of its FAA grants when it voted to increase fuel and landing fees. The lawsuit asks the court to reverse the fee hikes by nullifying the resolutions that established them.
If airport traffic drops significantly, there’s also a potential economic impact. In 2010, the State Department of Transportation determined that the airport was home to 91 jobs, generated annual earnings of $5.8 million, and annual economic activity of $12.6 million.
According to the BFAC’s earlier reports, 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—even with an expected steep drop in landing fees and fuel royalties.
That’s crucial, because pilots have complained that in 2010, the Town Board adopted an Airport Master Plan that called for the repair and maintenance of two runways, but they say nothing has been done.
Pilots associated with the Friends of the East Hampton Airport have already filed suit in anticipation of the regulations, saying the town is still obligated to the Federal Aviation Administration and cannot pass certain restrictions limiting access. They have asked the FAA to direct the town to resolve “critical safety and security gaps” at the airport.
They said fiscal evaluations failed to include a series of key capital projects needed at the airport. The biggest would be restoring Runway 4-22—a project estimated to cost $3 million nearly a decade ago. Other work would include some $300,000 in upgrades and expansions to the fuel farm, deer fencing around the airport perimeter, finishing installation of a $240,000 weather station, and removing trees and other obstructions near the runways. All are part of a master plan adopted by the town after a lengthy process in 2010.
The town’s failure to tackle those projects, and failing to plan for them, combined with the proposed new regulations are “a strong indication that there is an agenda by some to push the airport toward closure,” said the town’s Aviation Operations Subcommittee.
“It is completely disingenuous to think the town would be able to maintain the airport with increased landing fees and a proposed ban on most of the aircraft that would produce those landing fees,” said Mr. Meisel, of the EHAA. “It’s voodoo economics.”
Noise stemming from airport operations has been a serious sticking point for years, not only for many East Hampton residents but for residents of eastern Southampton Town and the North Fork who live under flight paths.
In recent years, the complaints have dramatically increased along with airport traffic—especially helicopters. More commercial enterprises have sprung up, like Blade—a crowd-sourcing service that offers helicopter seats between Manhattan and East Hampton for $500—and StndAIR and Fly the Whale, which offer seats on seaplanes for around the same price.
But how those complaints should be interpreted, and who is making them, is a point of contention between airport advocates and those seeking tougher restrictions.
For the 26,000 airport operations—takeoffs and landings—from November 2013 to October 2014, there were approximately 24,000 complaints. But HMMH, the town’s consultants, report that those 24,000 complaints came from just 633 addresses, an average of nearly 38 complaints per household.
The report said that approximately 200 households submitted one complaint, 500 households submitted more than 20, and about 30 households submitted more than 150 complaints during the year.
Ten homes reported more than 400 each—one household alone submitted nearly 3,000, and another submitted nearly 2,000.
Those figures have raised hackles in the aviation community. Pilots ask how the town could base its entire proposal on 633 homes and on residents who complained an inordinate amount of times. The East Hampton Aviation Association suggested that the timing of the calls from one of the household submitting the most complaints implies that an auto-dialer might have been used to place a complaint once per hour, around the clock.
Mr. Meisel said his association has asked for information on the number of complaints in 2014 to see who complained that many times, but the town would not release that information. Likewise, town officials did not fulfill a Freedom of Information Law request for the complaint data submitted by The Press.
Some of the complaints, Mr. Meisel said, might have come from properties with noise easements, such as Georgica Estates, which made acknowledgment of potential airport noise part of subdivision approvals. Those should thus be excluded from the total, he argues.
But town officials say that a complaint is a complaint. They also point out that the federal court system acknowledges the validity of using complaint data for the purposes of noise reduction.
“The fact that many people have taken the time to register those complaints is significant,” said Ms. Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition. “Whoever those people may be, filing complaints at a much greater percentage, make no mistake, their neighbors are suffering under the same noises and they may be a representative for their neighborhood.”
Helicopters present the biggest problem among residents—they account for 68 percent of complaints about all aircraft that fly in and out of the airport, despite helicopters accounting for only 33 percent of flight operations.
Although a simple ban on helicopters might do the trick, that kind of outright discrimination against a category of aircraft is unlawful. Attorney Mr. Kirsch has said the regulations need to be narrowly tailored to fit the problem.
Ms. Cunningham said she has dealt with the annoyance of aircraft noise for about 20 years and has served in multiple capacities during that time to solve the issue. Now that she is looking at a set of regulations, she sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“There is a sense of anxious anticipation now that we’ve finally gotten something meaningful in place,” she said. “It has been such a long road. The possibility that it could actually be quieter is so exciting.”
The public hearing on Thursday is expected to draw hundreds from all over the East End, including pilots, aviation advocates and businesses, to the noise affected who are fed up and ready to see the town take action.
Some say that the town hasn’t done its due diligence because of that, but others like Ms. Cunningham, feel confident going forward based on past studies, though she feels that what is proposed could have been better.
“I had hoped that the aviation committee the councilwoman set up allowed for more collaboration with the aviation community,” she said. “I’m not sure they took full advantage the way the noise subcommittee met and fleshed out what they wanted and needed and how to work with the community. It’s a big deal to get to this point.”
But some pilots feel their pleas fell on deaf ears.
“This is a willful and intentional manipulation of the facts, policies and truth,” Mr. Meisel said. “It is not for the purported purpose of abating noise for the majority.”