Balancing Act - 27 East


Balancing Act

authorStaff Writer on Apr 1, 2021

King Solomon makes a cameo as East Hampton Town, and so many residents in the region, debate the future of East Hampton Airport. His legendary skills at settling a seemingly intractable dispute would come in handy as the Town Board considers, this fall, a new set of options it hasn’t had before — one being the closure of the airport.

But the analogy falls a bit short. His “compromise” ruling was designed only to show that sometimes there is no reasonable compromise, and it ultimately falls to the decision-makers to guard everyone’s best interests. That’s where the East Hampton Town Board finds itself.

A recent Express Sessions discussion made it clear: Town officials face a balancing act, but it will be nearly impossible to find a compromise that all sides will accept. Even King Solomon might find himself stumped.

Candidly, the town has to keep the closure of the airport on the table, both as a legitimate option and as a kind of nuclear option to hold over pilots, helicopter companies and even the Federal Aviation Administration. But the interests of the community and its economy — and their own political interests — will make closing the airport an extreme position.

Which is not to say that the anti-airport side doesn’t have a case. In fact, the airport does inflict negatives on the community, not just noise but environmental pollution. As long as it stays open, it will be heavily trafficked, and mitigation measures tend to push the problem around. There is no solution, frankly, for residents in the flight path, wherever it falls, except to stop the air traffic, stop it all.

But closure is a bargaining chip that can keep the attention of the FAA and of the aviation interests. It falls to the organizations that support the airport to take seriously the need to find real solutions if the airport is to remain open.

In the end, compromise satisfies nobody, but it should address both sides’ concerns. What’s an “acceptable” amount of air traffic for a small airport in a wealthy community, with helicopters, jets and other aircraft eager to fly in? If it’s not zero, a torturous negotiation, requiring cool heads and strong backs on all sides, will need to find a number.

“When you asked me, can a middle ground be found? I don’t think so,” John Kirrane, a member of the Southampton Town Airport Noise Advisory Committee, said during the Express Sessions virtual conversation. On the other hand, Town Councilman Jeff Bragman, one of those who will be tasked with settling this question, maintained, “It’s not a question of to have an airport or to close the airport. There are a lot of gradations in between those two extremes.”

That demonstrates the Solomon-like challenge here. It’s a regional issue, the heavy summertime air traffic at East Hampton Airport, and its impact hits widely; note that Mr. Kirrane’s committee is based in Southampton Town, where much of the noise is heard on approaches to and from the airport located over the town border.

The answer likely will lie in limiting the number of flights. Opponents will not be happy to hear it, but eliminating a transportation hub will be a difficult choice for a town official, despite Mr. Bragman’s acknowledgment that the noise levels have made it a real option. It’s more likely that opponents will have more luck arguing in favor of limiting the number of flights and continuing attempts to find flight paths that mitigate the harm, at least until quieter, cleaner electric aircraft arrive in a decade or so.

Remember: King Solomon eventually ruled in favor of the cooler-headed side in court. There might be a lesson there after all.