East Hampton Town’s special aviation counsel said on Tuesday that the expiration of federal grant obligations would have no significant impact on the town’s ability to regulate aircraft traffic, seeking to settle a debate that has raged for more than a decade over whether or not the town should accept federal funds for capital improvements to East Hampton Airport.
In a lengthy presentation to the East Hampton Town Board, the attorney, Peter J. Kirsch, said that the town’s ability to regulate incoming and outgoing aircraft would increase “slightly, but only slightly,” if the town were to accept no new federal grants and allow existing contractual obligations to expire in 2021.
The presentation flew in the face of a position advocated by anti-noise advocates for years: that a simple solution to aircraft noise would be to allow federal grant obligations, or “grant assurances,” to expire, and then impose curfews, bar certain types of vehicles from landing, and put other regulations in place that cut down on traffic. Advocates of that plan, some of whom have recently joined together to form the Quiet Skies Coalition, claim that the contractual obligations are what is keeping the town from being able to impose restrictions on aircraft traffic.
Mr. Kirsch, a partner in a national law firm that specializes in aviation law, Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell LLP, said that even if the town had no federal grant obligations, federal law would prohibit local restrictions on landings and bans on certain types of aircraft, like helicopters, and the town would have to wage a long and costly legal battle to impose them. “Most of the grant assurances simply echo and mirror other requirements in federal law,” he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration gives grants for capital maintenance to the 3,400 airports that are part of the national airport system, including East Hampton Airport in Wainscott. But the recipients of the grants must agree to 39 grant assurances, which typically have 20-year lifespans and range from “hyper-technical and fairly insignificant” to “very significant,” Mr. Kirsch said. Among them are the requirements that airports not discriminate against certain types of aircraft and that airports be “operated at all times in a safe and serviceable condition.”
Those requirements and most others would not change if the town allowed its grant assurances to expire, because the rules are also part of federal law, Mr. Kirsch said. The Federal Aviation Administration writes them in to grant assurances to make them cheaper and easier to enforce, he said.
Mr. Kirsch also discounted the effects of a 2005 settlement in which the FAA agreed to not enforce four key grant assurances after 2014, an agreement that came as a result of a lawsuit brought by a group called the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion. Mr. Kirsch said the FAA could move to enforce the same rules after 2014, using federal law. Pilots and airport users would likely also sue the town if it tried to restrict access, he said.
An airport owner may seek to block access to its airport for the purpose of curtailing noise under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, but the law requires costly studies and applicants often end up in court, Mr. Kirsch said. Since the law was passed, only one airport, in Naples, Florida, has successfully used it, and was able to ban certain types of vehicles, he said. Mr. Kirsch, whose firm represented the City of Naples, said it cost the city about $5 million and took three to four years. The case ended about 10 years ago, after the city was sued five times.
Airport owners may attempt to go through the process whether or not they have outstanding grant obligations, Mr. Kirsch said.
Mr. Kirsch said the town could use a “meat axe” or “scalpel” to address the burgeoning problem of aircraft noise. Either the town could go the way of Naples and be “willing to go to the ends of the earth” to impose noise-mitigating regulations, no matter the cost or the time required, or it could take a series of smaller measures that could achieve “75 to 80” percent of its goal over time.
Members of the Town Board have seemed inclined to take the latter course in recent months, approving the use of a control tower that will guide aircraft over the summer and could help manage noise. Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the Town Board’s liaison to the airport, has also advocated routing helicopters along a less-populous South Shore route, rather than along the North Shore.
But Kathy Cunningham, a member of the Quiet Sky Coalition’s steering committee, said she was encouraged that some Town Board members questioned Mr. Kirsch about the details of taking more aggressive action under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act. Ms. Cunningham, who listened to the presentation, also said the Town Board could petition local members of Congress for an exemption from the requirements of the law.