East Hampton Will Explore Plans To Close Airport After Court Blocks Flight Restrictions - 27 East

East Hampton Will Explore Plans To Close Airport After Court Blocks Flight Restrictions

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East Hampton Airport could be closed

East Hampton Airport could be closed "as soon as legally possible" an attorney for East Hampton Town said on Tuesday.

authorMichael Wright on Jun 7, 2022

The East Hampton Town Board has instructed its attorneys to begin exploring the possible avenues to closing East Hampton Airport indefinitely, “as soon as legally possible,” after being blocked in court from imposing new restrictions on flights at the airport.

An attorney who has handled airport matters for the town since 2017 said during a Town Board meeting on Tuesday, June 7, that because the town’s plans to impose new restrictions on flights last month were halted by a state judge, the board has asked him to begin devising a path to close the facility, if no other options for creating “a balanced airport” can be created in the near future.

So far, the town has maintained operations at the airport after the court order blocking the temporary closure was issued.

“We’ve been asked to begin the process of understanding and completing the steps to permanently close JPX as soon as legally possible,” the attorney, Bill O’Connor said, using the designated call sign of the airport while reading from a prepared statement over Zoom during Tuesday’s meeting. “The town has conveyed this to the [Federal Aviation Administration], and unless the town can achieve the community’s desire for a balanced airport in the near term, it is our understanding the town must now pursue a path to closure.”

O’Connor said that if the airport is closed, the town could decide at a later date to reopen it with “common sense” regulations.

“This is an unfortunate result, given all the good faith and hard work accomplished by the town in opening one of the most, if not the most, sophisticated private use airports in the country,” O’Connor added.

The attorney gave no hint about how quickly the town could actually close the airport if it chose to proceed with that strategy. He said he would explain more about the anticipated process to board members in private after Tuesday’s meeting.

Over the past year, town officials and their attorneys had negotiated with the FAA to craft a strategy for giving the town more control over air traffic at the airport, as a way to tamp down noise impacts on residents in neighborhoods below flight paths to the facility.

Last September, when 20-year grant assurances from past FAA funding expired, the town gained the power to close the airport if it desired. In February, the town announced that rather than a permanent closure it would close the airport temporarily and then reopen it as a technically “new”private airport, which attorneys from O’Connor’s firm, Cooley LLP, said would allow the town to adopt limitations on air traffic only available to private airport owners.

At least four lawsuits were filed seeking to derail the town’s plans, and pilots also appealed to the FAA directly asking the agency to declare the new restrictions unenforceable under federal law.

The town had planned to effect the brief closure on May 17, but was blocked the day before by a temporary restraining order issued by State Supreme Court Justice Paul J. Baisley on behalf of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, including the flight booking service Blade.

The FAA, however, had already set in motion technical processes that transitioned the airport from the previously public airport, known as HTO, to the new private one, JPX, and informed the town that the process could not be undone, regardless of the court’s roadblock. The airport is now on FAA charts as JPX.

Town Board members voiced support for having the attorneys explore the closure option — which town officials have long said is their only bargaining chip in pushing aviation interests to allow limits to be imposed on the airport’s use.

Councilwoman Cate Rogers quoted her own statements on the airport from over the winter, saying, “The status quo is unsustainable.”

“I do not support closure of the airport, but I do support meaningful changes,” Councilman David Lys added. “It’s appropriate to find out what it would take to do so. I hope we can come to a conclusion in which there are meaningful changes to operations.”

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said that the town’s work for years has always focused on striking a balance between keeping the airport open and reducing noise impacts. “We worked within the regulatory process of the FAA, they took us seriously … and a lot of good faith and hard work went into this,” she said. “So for me, I’m at a crossroads. It’s the community’s desire for a balanced airport, and if that can’t be achieved, we may be left with no other choice but to look at closure.”

Critics quickly blasted the town’s new posture, while those who have pressed for airport closure applauded the move and urged the town to proceed.

“We want compromise, everybody here wants compromise, but the Town Board has absolutely refused to engage in any kind of conversation,” Kathryn Slye, a pilot and frequent critic of the town’s approach to reining in aircraft traffic, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Which makes you wonder whether or not your goal from day one has been to close this airport, which is what your May 18, 2017, resolution said when you hired Bill O’Connor. You did that because of his success in closing Santa Monica airport. You did that five years ago. This has been your goal from day one.”

A group of Montauk homeowners who are among the plaintiffs in the three lawsuits that challenge the town’s proposed route to reining in air traffic released their own statement on Tuesday afternoon through an attorney.

“Instead of bringing the community together to address the shortcomings of their plan, the town is ignoring the TRO and threatening to shut down the East Hampton Airport, which is an economic engine for the East End and which 80 percent of town residents want to remain open,” the statement — signed by Thomas Bogdan, Joseph Dryer, Suse Lowenstein, Lynden Restrepo and Louise Sasso — reads. “We urge the town to bring its constituents together to work toward compromise rather than begin a lengthy multi-year process to shut down an airport that nearly everyone wants to remain open in some capacity.”

Other than aviation interests, Montauk residents have been the loudest opposition to the town’s plans to reduce traffic at East Hampton Airport, because they have said they fear that any limits will drive more aircraft to Montauk Airport.

The town’s proposed restrictions were presented as a one-season temporary test of how restrictions at East Hampton Airport worked, both in terms of reducing noise impacts, but also in terms of how much traffic they pushed to other airports and how that additional traffic impacted residents surrounding them.

Town officials have said that the limitations of Montauk’s capacity — its runway is too short for jets, its smaller tarmac doesn’t allow for much aircraft parking and there are no fueling or other services — to mean that the airport would see a huge change in its flight volumes.

On Monday night — before Tuesday’s revelation — a majority of the members of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee voted to issue a position to the Town Board that the CAC opposed any restrictions at the airport that would increase traffic to Montauk Airport. The committee had previously taken the stance that it opposed the closure of East Hampton Airport.

Airport critics who have complained about aircraft noise for years said the town should rule the accusations of its critics as disingenuous.

“These people oppose any meaningful restrictions,” said Barry Raebeck, a Wainscott resident who has lobbied for closing the airport permanently and had criticized the town’s flight restrictions as being insufficient to impact aircraft noise and pollution. “At the hint of even modest restrictions, that the environmental side thought were much too modest, they’re suing the town.

“The airportists have continually bullied this community, they’ve insulted us and distorted facts for their own purposes,” he added. “The airportists have left us as a community no choice.”

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