Two years after a federal circuit court shot down East Hampton Town’s attempt to restrict air traffic at its municipally-owned airport in Wainscott, the town board may weigh the possibility of closing the airport.
East Hampton is legally obligated by the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the airport open until 2021, when all of its “grant assurances,” due to prior FAA grant funding it had received, expire.
The town’s aviation counsel, Bill O’Connor of Cooley Law, presented several potential options to the town board at its Feb. 5 work session, at which the board also heard an analysis of its annual noise complaint and traffic data from the airport.
Mr. O’Connor suggested the board ask the FAA for assistance in implementing curfews at the airport, continue with a lengthy ‘Part 161’ study to back up the town’s attempt at noise restrictions, and start now on a “visioning process of alternative uses for the airport land, to restore and preserve the quiet and rural environment of East Hampton.”
Mr. O’Connor pointed out that the “FAA isn’t in the business of seeing airports close,” and added that, if the town began taking the possibility of closing the airport seriously, the FAA might pay attention to its other avenues of attempts to control noisy air traffic.
He added that the Northeast Region Helicopter Council is working with helicopter pilots who fly the route to East Hampton to research which maneuvers they conduct have the greatest noise impact on people on the ground, and the town could also look into creating an Air Traffic Management Plan, like those implemented with air tour operators over national parks.
He said that curfews “are likely achievable,” although the town would be most likely to have success with the FAA if they were “blanket curfews” that didn’t single out one type of aircraft, like helicopters.
Mary Ellen Eagan of consulting firm HMMH gave the overview of airport traffic and noise complaints, using data that compared 2018 to both 2017, after the town’s restrictions were struck down by the courts, and to 2016, when those restrictions were in effect.
“Helicopters were complained about more than any other category,” she said. “In all cases, complaints went up from 2016 to 2017 but went down from 2017 to 2018.”
Ms. Eagan said traffic at the airport in the 2018 season was about consistent with 2017, with overall operations decreasing by one percent and helicopter operations increasing by three percent. That’s in stark contrast to the overall change since the restrictions were lifted. She reported that overall traffic was up 13 percent from 2016 to 2018, and helicopter operations were up 52 percent.
She said complaints “went up significantly from 2016 to 2017, but have since gone down, but “2018 complaints are still significantly higher than in 2016.”
Mr. O’Connor pointed out that the more than 50 percent increase in helicopter traffic since 2016 is “quite a substantial jump,” and is “quite frankly the main source of noise complaints and the noise problem.”
Mr. O’Connor recommended the board begin discussing potential uses of the 600-acre airport property with stakeholders throughout the town, in anticipation that closure of the airport will be a possibility at the end of September 2021.
After the town’s restrictions were shot down by a federal appeals court in November of 2016, longtime opponents of the airport renewed calls to have it closed. Even State Assemblyman Fred Thiele weighed in, saying at the time that “while I have always believed that the responsible operation of an airport in East Hampton is an asset to the town, this court causes all responsible persons to first reconsider whether or not the town should be in the airport business.”
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez suggested Mr. O’Connor send his presentation to the FAA “so they can see how serious we are” about the possibility of closing the airport.
Councilman Jeff Bragman asked if the town could restrict air traffic if the airport closed and reopened as a private airport. The FAA requires public airports to be open to the public.
“The definition of a public airport is an airport operated by a public agency,” said Mr. O’Connor. “In order to take the airport outside of the public airport construct, there would have to be a clean break from the town.”
“This issue has been around for decades,” said Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. “We will take a very hard look at the options going forward. This has become a regional problem, which has a very negative impact on our quality of life.”