A federal court decision on Friday, denying a commercial helicopter trade group’s effort to overturn a rule requiring pilots to fly a mile north of Long Island’s North Shore, has been hailed by both sides in the long simmering dispute over noise coming from East Hampton Airport.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington against Helicopter Association International, which had challenged the Federal Aviation Administration ruling issued last summer, was applauded by East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the town’s airport liaison, who claimed that it bodes well for the town’s own efforts to regulate chopper noise at the airport. Kathleen Cunningham, the chairwoman of the anti-noise East Hampton Quiet Skies Coalition, also praised the ruling, saying it highlighted the importance of residents lodging noise complaints.
Meanwhile, the East Hampton Aviation Association, in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the running debate over East Hampton Airport, is touting the recent opinion of an experienced aviation law consultant it hired, who said rejecting FAA funding would not give the town greater control over the airport in terms of adopting “reasonable and non-discriminatory restrictions” for its use.
The opinion—issued by David Schaffer, a former senior counsel and staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives Aviation Subcommittee, in a July 1 letter to the pilots’ association—echoes the opinion of the town’s aviation attorney, Peter J. Kirsch. He previously reported to the Town Board that accepting FAA grants would not hurt the town’s ability to address community noise concerns.
Helicopter-noise opponents have claimed that if the town stopped accepting federal money, and let the time restrictions on the grants it has already received expire, it would be free to restrict airport access to noisy aircraft and set curfews.
In his letter, Mr. Schaffer said his conclusions were based on his knowledge of federal aviation law and an extensive survey of more than 30 cases spanning 40 years involving the rights of local powers to impose airport restrictions. His experience, he pointed out, includes 20 years with the House Aviation Subcommittee, six years as attorney-advisor for the Civil Aeronautics Board and nine years in private practice representing governmental and private aviation clients.
The town, as the airport’s proprietor, he saids, can make noise regulations even if it continues to accept federal funds, Restrictions on helicopter operations must be “reasonable” and not make “unjustified distinctions between operators or types of aircraft.
To justify restrictions on helicopters, he wrote, the town should undertake technical studies to establish that East Hampton is a quiet community and that choppers are noisier or more bothersome than fixed-wing aircraft. If these studies demonstrate a justification for restrictions, then curfews and limits on the numbers of flights could be upheld, even if the town continues to take FAA funding, thus extending the length of time it is bound by FAA grant restrictions.
Finally, Mr. Schaffer rejected how an oft-cited court case, National Helicopter Corp. of America v. City of New York, has been used as an example to show that a municipality can win the ability to regulate helicopters by rejecting FAA funds. According to him, municipalities’ regulations must meet the same federal standards for establishing noise restrictions, regardless of whether they get FAA funds.
“The opponents want the town not to take what they call the ‘poison money’ because they want the town to be free of grant assurances,” some of which expire as soon as next year, said Gerard Boleis, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, on Monday. “Our position is that there is no reason—notwithstanding the propaganda of the opponents—not to take FAA money.”
His group’s main goal, he said, is to keep the airport open. He said that he believes airport opponents, despite their claims to the contrary—because it would be an unpopular stance—are seeking to shut it down and to do that, they are trying to prevent “at all costs” the town from taking FAA money. “I believe that’s their ultimate goal and that’s what we’re fighting. That’s the only advantage they would gain by not taking FAA money, not to mention the airport would decay.”
Mr. Stanzione on Monday said the court’s upholding of FAA authority to regulate helicopter noise paves the way for continuing to press it to implement a long sought after effort to route helicopters over the Atlantic Ocean instead of over homes on land, and to continue working with the FAA to get approval for additional noise control measures, such as mandatory curfews and access restrictions.
The town is in the first phase of conducting noise studies on which about $50,000 was already budgeted for and spent, he said. These studies are expected to take two to three years and will require additional money to the tune of about $2 million, he said.
Jeffrey Bragman, an East Hampton attorney representing petitioners in a lawsuit challenging the environmental review for the airport’s master plan and layout plan, said on Monday that he disagrees with Mr. Schaffer’s findings.
“They’re deliberately trying to confuse the public about FAA grant funding,” he said.
Airport Manager Jim Brundige, told the Town Board last week that the number of aircraft landing at and departing from the airport was way down this year over the same Fourth of July period the year before, which he attributed to rain. Only a tiny portion of pilots violated an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. voluntary curfew, he said.