A 2010 lawsuit filed against East Hampton Town by the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, which challenged the town’s updated Airport Master Plan, calling it inadequate in determining aircraft noise disturbance, was dismissed on appeal on March 11.
The complaint, argued in the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court on January 16, was brought against former Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and his fellow Town Board members. It charged that the master plan’s environmental impact study was inaccurate because of the methodology used to determine the impacts of noise from the airport.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs included David Gruber of East Hampton, Barbara Miller of Wainscott, Robert and Barbara Wolfram of Sag Harbor, and Stephen Levine of Southampton. It claimed that the town’s environmental impact study on the airport, known as the final generic environmental impact statement, or FGEIS, did not include a section on noise complaints and used faulty data to ultimately determine that there were no serious effects of noise from the airport on the surrounding residential areas.
However, the justices in the case found that the report was sufficient and that the town had fulfilled its obligations under the State Environmental Quality Review Act “by taking a hard look at the potential noise impacts of the proposed actions and made a reasonable elaboration of the basis for its determination in the final generic environmental impact statement, which thoroughly analyzed noise data and potential mitigation based upon noise averaging methodology,” the decision reads in part.
The plaintiffs had argued that the federal noise data standard used by the town averaged noise levels over one year, rendering them meaningless because of the high level of traffic in summer and virtual absence of traffic in winter. The plaintiffs said that they had proposed an alternative “single event standard” that would measure the disturbance of noise based on individual instances, thereby highlighting the effects of a single aircraft operation on the noise level, but that the town had turned them down.
However, the appellate court agreed with the town. “Although the petitioners disagree with the use of the noise averaging methodology, the determination of the Town Board is supported by accepted governmental guidelines for measuring noise impacts around airports,” the decision said. “The FGEIS need not identify or discuss every conceivable alternative, including the particular alternative proposed by the petitioners.”
Pat Trunzo, chair of the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, explained that the averaging standard of measuring noise is inappropriate for East Hampton Airport because activity at the town-owned airport spikes for only two to three months of the year, and nine months of relative quiet are then averaged into the overall noise level.
“It really isn’t valid for anything other than metropolitan airports that operate seven days a week for 365 days a year,” Mr. Trunzo said following the court’s decision.
Mr. Gruber called the ruling unfortunate. “I don’t think SEQRA makes any sense if you can just declare that an obvious problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “It’s like climate change denial. At some point, the denial becomes unsustainable—and we’ve reached that point.”
The environmental impact study was completed in August of 2010 by the consulting firm Young Environmental Sciences. The Town Board accepted its findings and updated the master plan on September 2.
The Airport Master Plan, known as the Airport Layout Plan, or ALP, is used by the Federal Aviation Administration to plan its funding allotments for the years ahead. Grants from the FAA pay for 90 percent of airport capital projects with a portion of the money collected from ticket sales and other fees.
East Hampton’s 2010 ALP was completed by then-Councilman and town airport liaison Dominic Stanzione. The Town Board signed off on the plan but did not follow through on accepting grant money from the FAA for capital improvements that are still required, such as the paving of Runway 4-22, upgrades and expansion of the fuel farm, the installation of deer fencing to prevent accidents during landings and takeoffs, the removal of trees and runway obstructions, and other necessary capital improvements.
Mr. Stanzione said that the ruling is a victory for the Town of East Hampton and its ALP, having received the approval of the state’s highest court. “It validates the hard work that all town planning professionals performed on this historic matter,” he said. “Having a fully litigated Airport Master Plan offers a foundation for all future activity at the airport.”
The current Town Board hired consultants to complete a separate noise study in 2014. It included analysis of noise complaints by residents, the effects of different flight paths on homes below and the noise levels of various types of aircraft.
No longer tied to federal regulations on airport operations by certain FAA grant assurances, the Town Board then proposed several restrictions on operations at the airport to help alleviate noise. But some argue that limiting operations could squeeze the airport’s finances and make it difficult to pay for the capital improvements. A public hearing on the proposed restrictions was held on Thursday, March 12.
Mr. Gruber added that he didn’t find the ruling to be of particular consequence. “What was said by a town board five years ago really doesn’t matter,” he said. “The current Town Board has built a record that overwhelmingly established that there’s noise all over the place, so the court ruling doesn’t matter anymore. The board now overwhelmingly acknowledged the problem.”
Mr. Trunzo agreed that the outcome of the 2010 lawsuit is irrelevant since the Town Board allowed some FAA grant assurances to expire in December and is now free to set limits on aircraft operations. He added that he welcomes the proposed restrictions.
“I think, for the first time in decades, we have a Town Board that is willing to seriously address the aircraft noise problem and deliver significant relief to the East End,” Mr. Trunzo said.