An appeal by a group of pilots to the Town Board that it maintain all three runways at East Hampton Airport, instead of closing one permanently, has again prompted a debate over the wisdom of accepting grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain the airport.
The issue is the loss of local control when federal funds are accepted for use at the town-owned the airport.
Keeping all three runways usable, which pilots told the Town Board two weeks ago is critical for safety throughout the year, would not burden the town financially if it would accept funding assistance from the FAA, the pilots said. The FAA and state would pay for up to 95 percent of any maintenance and upgrading work.
As the Town Board has worked on a new master plan for the airport, it has not ruled out using FAA funding but board members have said they wanted to see if fees and borrowing could pay for the work.
Town consultants have estimated that repaving one secondary runway would cost approximately $4 million. Repaving the parking aprons could cost another $2 million and repairing cracks in the main runway and a taxiway an additional $650,000.
“It’s been said that the board has a regulatory or financial reason to close one runway,” pilot Tom Twomey told the Town Board last week during a work session on August 19. “I’m here to say that is rubbish. It’s not true at all. You can get money for all three runways, and that’s what we need. The Town Board was not stupid in 1932 when it created three runways. They built all three runways for a good reason.” Mr. Twomey, a lawyer whose wife is former supervisor Judith Hope, noted that the town has not taken any federal funding for maintenance at the airport for years. He called it a “shocking” refusal considering the town’s financial state, he said.
The use of federal funding has been criticized by residents who want to see the airport’s operations curtailed because federal funding carries with it grant “assurances”: promises the grant recipient must make to the FAA to keep the facility accessible to users of the national airspace.
The assurances from money accepted for maintenance work in the 1990s were the subject of a 2002 lawsuit filed by residents who live under the airport’s flight paths; a settlement between the FAA and the airport opponents pushed up the date of the assurances’ expiration from 2020 to 2014—although there is some legal question whether or not the FAA has the authority make such an agreement.
Opponents hope that once the assurances expire, the town could impose restrictions to lessen the noise impact on nearby residential neighborhoods.
The vast majority of the requirements that come with FAA grants are safety oriented and not something the town would ever think of ignoring anyway, airport manager Jim Brundige has said. Assurances would preclude the town from imposing a curfew on the use of the airport or restricting particular types of aircraft from using its runways—but Mr. Brundige, a former pilot, said this week that enforcing such limitations would be nearly impossible, legally. Proposing to exclude a specific type of exceptionally noisy aircraft, like helicopters, would also require extensive noise impact studies that could cost the town millions and still might not result in legislation that would survive a court challenge or prove enforceable.
The town has a voluntary curfew in place at the airport now but it is often ignored by some pilots, particularly in summertime. Voluntary flight paths for helicopters, intended to reduce noise impacts on residential areas near the airport, are also routinely ignored by a few users. Even when followed, they bring noise complaints from other neighborhoods.
But the airport’s major opponents see the grant assurances as an obstacle to any kind of future restrictions that they hope may help curtail aircraft noise.
“We have no control over the parts of the airport that allow you to stop noise,” said Edward Gorman, chairman of the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, the residents group that sued over the FAA assurances in 2002. “If there’s no assurances, we could have a curfew and deny certain types of aircraft.”
Pilots had not complained about the Town Board’s plans to close one of the runways until a recent debate over which of the three runways should be eliminated reignited. The town had planned tentatively on restoring Runway 4-22, which has been closed for two years because of its poor condition, and closing Runway 16-34 to allow for more parking space in front of the terminal.
But Supervisor McGintee recently announced he had changed his mind about Runway 22, prompting small-plane pilots, who use that runway in summer, harangued the Town Board last week. The pilots said the runway is critical for small planes to take off and land safely in the spring and summer months when the prevailing winds blow from the southwest. Mr. McGintee said prevailing northwest winds in fall and winter are stronger than summer winds and more of a challenge to light planes. Runway 34 heads northwest; the “34” refers to its compass heading of 340 degrees. The “22” refers to a heading of 220 headings. Also, there is less residential settlement off the ends of 16-34, he said.