East Hampton’s airport is falling deeper and deeper into disrepair as the town has put off funding projects over the past few years, according to the town’s airport consultant, Dennis Yap of DY Consultants, who pitched a five-year, $10 million capital improvement plan to the town Nov. 21.
If the town funds projects using Federal Aviation Administration grants, they are required by the federal government to keep the airport open 24 hours a day and have little say in what kind of aircraft can land there. These so-called “grant assurances” for prior work funded by the FAA expire at the end of 2014 if the town doesn’t do any more work using FAA money, allowing the town to limit noisy aircraft.
Mr. Yap’s plan was submitted to the town board just one day before the Nov. 21 public hearing and was not available on the town’s website prior to the meeting. Many opponents of airport noise who packed into town hall to air their concerns said they hadn’t had enough time to digest the plan, while others said the two-page document gave them little information to digest in the first place.
Town Board airport liaison Dominick Stanzione, who lost this month’s election in part due to his support for the airport, told attendees at the Nov. 21 meeting that the plan doesn’t make mention of the funding source for the work.
“Obviously, the choice is to fund it locally or accept federal funds,” he said. “I wish who does make those choices good luck.”
Airport manager Jim Brundige said that many items in the plan, including repaving runways, fixing runway lights, and clearing vegetation in the way of the flight paths, were essential to the safety of users of the airport.
“I’m concerned the airport could close out of neglect,” he said.
Pilots who use the airport shared frightening stories of deer being hit by airplanes as they take off and land. Bernard Kerwick estimated that there have been 50 accidents, some unreported, between airplanes and deer.
“There’s a freshly severed head at the airport tonight. I thought it might be shocking if I brought it here tonight,” he said, adding that he had decapitated a baby deer that ran across the runway as he was landing the prior evening. Kenneth Lee, a pilot who uses the airport for his business, said “from my standpoint, it’s not a question of should we fix the airport or not. It relates to my livelihood and my family’s safety…. Is it a rational choice for me to use this airport?”
Opponents of noise at the airport, however, said they were concerned about several discrepancies in the plan, including the demolition and reconstruction of a hangar, which wasn’t a part of the town’s existing airport layout plan, and some confusion over the projected future status of runway 4-22, which is currently serving as a taxiway to the other two runways.
The plan called for the reconstruction of runway 4-22, which some construed as an attempt to have three open runways at the airport, but Mr. Yap said the plan actually calls for using runway 16-34 as a taxiway and reopening 4-22, which is oriented ideally for small planes. That configuration is recommended in the airport layout plan.
Kathy Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said the capital plan seemed designed to her to “frighten us into taking FAA funding.” She added that the town needs to prepare an environmental impact statement for projects that weren’t included in the layout plan.
People who live in areas surrounding the airport, and in Noyac and Sag Harbor, on the helicopter approach to the airport, said they’d just had enough of the noise.
Patricia Currie of Sag Harbor asked why just $165,000 of the $10 million wish list was devoted to noise studies.
“Shame on you. Shame,” she told the town board.
Bob Wolfram, also of Sag Harbor, said if the town board had brought such a flimsy document up for a public bond vote, the public would have laughed at them.
“Leave this for the next administration,” he said. “Taking money from the FAA is making a deal with the devil. We will not be able to control this airport ever again.”
Rachel Fareone said she thought funding the project locally was a logical solution, perhaps through an increase in user fees at the airport.
“I don’t think anyone disputes that we want the airport to be a safe place for planes to land,” she said. “Let’s do this on our own dime.”
The town board tabled a resolution on adopting the capital plan. Mr. Stanzione said he wants to have the town’s attorneys look into some of the issues raised at the hearing and discuss the document at a work session before proceeding further.
“Thank god we didn’t vote on it. That would be rushing it through,” said Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson sarcastically, referring to rumors in the community about projects his administration may be planning to push through before they leave office in five weeks.