East Hampton Seeks A Clear Path Through Airport Lawsuits
Pictured Above: A jet landing at East Hampton Airport. | East Hampton Town photo
While East Hampton Town faces down seven different lawsuits and legal proceedings challenging its right to control its municipally-owned airport, the town laid out a new path forward this week in its attempt to curb airport traffic.
As of the fall of 2021, after 20 years of waiting to wrest back local control, the Federal Aviation Administration’s grant assurances — conditions the town agreed to when it last took federal grant money for maintenance of the airport in 2001 — had expired, conceivably allowing the town to limit the number and time of flights to and from the airport.
After spending more than a year holding public input sessions on re-envisioning the airport, the town thought it had a plan in place in the spring of 2022 — close the airport temporarily and reopen it as a “prior permission required,” or PPR airport, allowing the town to regulate the way in which the airport was used.
As part of its State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) obligations associated with this change, the town, on the advice of its attorneys at Cooley LLP, planned to implement curfews and trip limits on a trial basis in the summer of 2022, to gather data on how those changes impact both the East Hampton airport, and neighboring airports, including the Montauk Airport, Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, and a helipad on Dune Road in Southampton.
The town’s plan was thwarted after Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley, after hearing three lawsuits from airport users, granted an injunction this summer against the town implementing the trial changes, and in October ordered the town to complete the SEQRA process before implementing the changes.
While the town appealed that ruling Nov. 9, its attorney, Bill O’Connor of Cooley LLIP, told the town board at its Nov. 15 work session that the appeal process could easily take up to two years, and he recommended the town redo its SEQRA process in the interim, without the trial restrictions.
“The court found, in a nutshell, that the town’s SEQRA process needed to be reformulated. The implication is we needed to study everything using simulated data versus real world data,” he said. “The town board disagreed, ultimately, with this decision, but the appeal is a long process, make no mistake about it. It can take up to two years to get that appeal resolved, which is difficult given the pressing need at the airport.”
He added that the trial period planned for this past summer “was the process of trying to gather as much input as possible before making a significant change.”
A separate case is also pending in federal court brought by the National Business Aviation Association — the judge in that case had been waiting to see what happened in the Suffolk County case, said Mr. O’Connor, who added that there will be a status conference on that case on Dec. 7.
Mr. O’Connor said the town had been working with the FAA on drafting the framework for the Prior Permission Required airport, and said he would urge the judge in the federal case to ask the FAA to weigh in on the town’s plans.
“There are no substantive rulings in that case, but there probably will be in the near future,” said Mr. O’Connor, adding that it’s possible in the case of multiple lawsuits that there will be conflicting rulings.
In the meantime, the town is moving forward with revising its SEQRA process, and will be issuing a Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) for public comment within the next four weeks, in the hopes of having a final document together early next year.
This is likely to look very similar to a DGEIS issued for public comment last spring, which received about 500 public comments, said the town’s consultant, Dan Russo.
“The court has ordered a full SEQRA process, and we hope to have that done before the appellate decision comes out,” said Mr. Russo. “Some petitioners may challenge your ultimate decision on this step, but we’ll have it done in a fashion consistent with what the court has ordered to date. We think the rulings are incorrect.”
Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that he and his colleagues on the board had campaigned last year on the process of implementing restrictions at the airport, a process for which they’ve heard overwhelming support.
“We’re here to represent our community, and what we heard from the community was ‘we want this airport to reflect our values and be something that is not a detriment,’” he said. “At this point we’re committed to continuing that effort on behalf of the community… It’s important for people to understand that we’re going to have to continue to work our way through the legal system and redo our SEQRA process, rather than taking real time data. The ultimate goal here is to end up with an airport that is accepted by the community, and if it’s not accepted by the community, I think the community will ultimately seek its closure.”
Mr. O’Connor said it’s not clear now whether it would be legal for the town to close the airport.
“When you have multi-forum litigation, state and federal, there’s always the risk you will get different decisions,” he said. “We have to take a wait-and-see approach, but I would recommend the town stake out a legal position on that ‘closure’ at some point…. We wouldn’t take that step tomorrow.”
Mr. O’Connor also weighed in on two statements made during the public comment period after his presentation.
Alex Gertsen of the National Business Aviation Association in Washington, D.C., which filed the federal lawsuit, said his group wanted to work with the town to “find solutions for all operations to continue in a neighborly and efficient way. We would like to work with all stakeholders to ensure the long-term future of the airport.”
“That’s the first time we’ve heard in years from NBAA about any effort to come to the table,” said Mr. O’Connor. “Now today they’re saying ‘we want to sit down and work this out.’”
Tom Bogdan of Montauk said he thought the town board was lying to the people of Montauk about how potential changes in East Hampton would affect the Montauk airport.
“You haven’t said one word about exactly what you will do if you find out Montauk is disastrously affected,” he said. “Every study says Montauk will be inundated with flights if you close that airport… You’ve lied to us in promising Montauk would never be affected by flights.”
“I don’t appreciate you calling us liars, and fear mongering is not the way to solve problems,” said Mr. Van Scoyoc. “For three years, we negotiated and tried to purchase the Montauk Airport to ensure there was control over that airport. That’s a public airport. People can fly there whenever they want. We have no control over that.”
“The whole trial period (planned for last summer) was in large part to address the concerns at Montauk,” said Mr. O’Connor. “The goal was to understand the diversions (of traffic from East Hampton to Montauk) and make those adjustments.”
He added that Mr. Bogdan, as a petitioner in one of the lawsuits, had actually helped preclude the town from being able to study the impact on Montauk.