The East Hampton Town Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to seek Federal Aviation Administration grants to fund the design of a perimeter fence around East Hampton Airport, less than one week after the issue was hashed out at a three-hour-long hearing.
The Town Board’s decision goes against anti-noise activists who have long argued against accepting FAA funds for capital improvements at the airport, saying the grants come with contractual obligations that prevent the town from regulating aircraft traffic and noise. If the FAA provides money for the fence, the obligations, known as “grant assurances,” will be in place until 2031, effectively ending a debate that has raged for years over whether or not the town could be better off by letting the obligations expire.
The Town Board’s Republican majority has consistently supported accepting federal grants, but the issue has been more complicated for Democrats because some party officials and supporters are on the other side of the issue. Councilman Pete Hammerle and Councilwoman Julia Prince, the board’s two Democrats, voted in favor of seeking the grant after Peter J. Kirsch, the Town Board’s special aviation attorney, laid out a lengthy step-by-step plan the town could implement to abate noise while under contract with the FAA.
The plan included the recommendation that the town go through a federal process that would potentially allow it to restrict takeoffs and landings of helicopters, which many regard as the most bothersome airport users.
“I think the plan that was presented today was probably everyone’s best chance of getting more immediate relief from helicopter noise, which in my estimation, is the major, major objection to our airport and how out of control it’s gotten,” Mr. Hammerle said. “I think your plan is going to give us relief from that faster than waiting for grant assurances to run out, and while we were sitting around waiting for grant assurances to run out, we would have a further deteriorating airport condition.”
Pilots and airport users in the audience applauded after votes were cast. Supervisor Bill Wilkinson thanked Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the Town Board’s liaison to the airport, who ran the hearing last Thursday and led the effort to put together the noise abatement plan.
“You have brokered successfully all sides of an aisle—I don’t know how many sides of an aisle there are these days—and you brought a good plan forward with only one thing in mind and that’s the community,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
On Monday, David Gruber, a longtime opponent of federal funding at the airport and a member of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee, said he and his allies would try to block the town from getting the grants by seeking an injunction in New York State Supreme Court. Last November, Mr. Gruber and five other residents filed a lawsuit against the Town Board, claiming it did not properly conduct an environmental review before approving an Airport Master Plan that September.
Mr. Gruber, who acts as the attorney for the group of anti-noise activists, called the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, who are plaintiffs in the case, said the town cannot apply for FAA grants while the Airport Master Plan remains tied up in court, or if the plan is eventually ruled illegitimate.
Pilots and airport advocates flooded the hearing last Thursday and urged the board to seek federal grants for the fence. More than 50 people spoke, with supporters of the grants outnumbering opponents by at least a two-to-one margin. About 130 people crowded into Town Hall, with attendees lining the walls of the meeting room and spilling into the lobby.
Although the perimeter fence, meant primarily to keep deer and turkeys off the runway, was the official subject of the hearing, many participants acknowledged that the true question at hand was whether the Town Board should accept new federal grants with new 20-year contractual obligations. Many viewed it as a key round in a debate that has gone on for more than 20 years over how the town should manage burgeoning aircraft noise.
The hearing was also a showdown between two advocacy groups: the Quiet Skies Coalition, which formed in August and has been urging the town to break with the FAA and impose flight curfews and aircraft bans, and the East Hampton Aviation Association, which is against restricting access to the airport and favors other methods of noise abatement.
More than 30 pilots, many of whom were members of the Aviation Association, made various arguments for seeking federal grants to fund construction and repairs at the airport, saying that taxing residents for the improvements made no sense, that the airport is an economic asset and that rejecting FAA grants would not in fact allow the town to impose the local air traffic restrictions, like curfews and bans on certain aircraft, that the other side supports.