The East Hampton Town Board this week opened public debate on whether it should apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to impose curfews and other restrictions on aircraft at East Hampton Airport—a process that attorneys said likely will take three to five years and cost $2 million, or more, and might still be a long shot for success.
Aviation proponents said they supported the application process, as long as the planned restrictions are reasonable. But some at the opposite end of the spectrum said that rather than spend millions more on legal avenues to try to lessen noise impacts, the board instead should work on a path to close the airport altogether once federal grant requirements expire in 2021.
Board members, for their part, seemed prepared to move forward with crafting rules that would restrict flights, in hopes of lessening noise to the point that the airport can continue to operate without causing widespread discomfort and irritation in residential neighborhoods as far away as the North Fork.
The application is known as a “Part 161,” in reference to the chapter of the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act that allows municipalities to apply to restrict aircraft traffic to lessen noise impacts on their residents. It would require exhaustive analysis of aircraft traffic and noise impacts around the Wainscott airport, analysis of economic impacts of any changes to flight rules on aviation companies and aviation-related businesses, and exploration of various alternatives to imposing restrictions on aircraft—like paying to better soundproof the homes of those living under flightpaths.
An attorney for the law firm that the town has hired to help it decide whether to pursue the Part 161, and to lead the application process if so, told the board that no municipality has ever convinced the FAA that the benefits of curfews and other constraints on flights outweigh the economic negatives that would come with them—but he added that East Hampton’s situation is vastly different from most of those that have tried.
“There are factors present at East Hampton Airport that, at least in my mind, paint a little more optimistic picture that could make an East Hampton application more successful,” attorney Bill O’Connor told the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee on Monday morning. “Those other applications all involved rather large commercial airports. And you have concrete data of what certain restrictions may look like in terms of impacts … and benefits to the community.”
Mr. O’Connor said that to proceed with the application, the town would need to spend the fall and winter meeting with interest groups and working out what form the restrictions it would seek to impose would take. Town officials also would need to begin the economic study, with an application to the FAA being submitted in the fall of 2018.
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said on Monday that the town is not currently at the point of being able to guess what restrictions it would seek beyond restoring some form of mandatory curfews on aircraft to eliminate late-night and early-morning traffic, which has been identified as the source of the most disturbing noise to residents in surrounding neighborhoods and towns.
“We know that what we ultimately have to get at is the frequency” of aircraft landing or taking off at the airport, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said on Monday. “One or two helicopters flying over an hour, people can stand. But it’s the constant stream, one after another.”
In 2014, the current Town Board members adopted two sets of curfews on aircraft at the airport: one barring all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., and another barring flights by especially loud aircraft between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m.
The town also adopted a rule limiting any individual loud aircraft to no more than one landing and one takeoff each week, hoping to greatly reducing the number of flights, especially by charter helicopter companies shuttling New York City residents to weekend retreats.
When aviation industry groups, led by the charter helicopter companies, sued, a federal judge allowed the curfews to remain in place while the case was litigated but blocked the limitation on flights. The curfews ultimately were struck down by a higher court last November, which said in its ruling that the town should use the Part 161 process to impose the restrictions it seeks.
Consultants said that the curfews eliminated more than 99 percent of flights within the curfew windows, and that complaints during those times essentially ended as well.
On Tuesday, at the Town Board work session, residents from the neighborhoods surrounding the airport and elsewhere on both the North and South Forks implored the Town Board to pursue new restrictions—or start planning to close the airport.
“Our village is inundated with helicopter noise, and I know you have a daunting task,” said Diane Skillbred, a village trustee in North Haven. “Thank you for not giving up.”
Some said they saw the process being too drawn out and costly when closing the airport was an option.
“It’s going to be years before you can get anywhere, and it’s going to cost you a lot of money—which leaves you with no alternative but to consider closing the airport,” said Gene Polito. “I don’t think it’s a necessity. It only serves the people who are able to use it—less than 1 percent—and the rest of the community is getting bombarded by the noise. It’s only getting worse.”
Aviation advocates said that the town was taking the prudent approach to addressing noise that it should have used in the first place by making a Part 161 application.
“We supported the curfew—we never objected to it,” said Gene Oshrin, a member of the East Hampton Aviation Association, a group of private local pilots. “It was the way you imposed the curfew.”
In discussions with Mr. O’Connor on Monday, the group had said it supported the application but wanted to ensure that the restrictions would be reasonable and based on accurate data about noise impact, economic costs and the importance of the airport to the region.
“The East Hampton Aviation Association fully supports the town doing this,” said Kathryn Slye, a member of the group. “We want a very safe and properly maintained airport. We want to solve the concerns of the noise-affected community, and we want to help everyone along in this process.”
She added, “We think that an anti-airport contingent … has hijacked the process.”
Supervisor Larry Cantwell acknowledged that proceeding with the Part 161 application will be a laborious chore for the town but indicated that the effort might help groups on the extremes find a path forward that would, in the end, serve everyone’s needs sufficiently.
“The board is going to have a hard choice to make here,” he said. “What are the likely outcomes, how will it affect the noise and what will be the benefit to the community.
“One of the opportunities here may just be the chance for different groups to come together and sit down,” he added. “I think there’s a growing acknowledgment that airport noise is having a negative impact on our community and other communities. Sometimes you need to recognize a problem to bring people together to solve a problem.”
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