The East Hampton Town Board has asked its legal consultants to look into the possibility of closing its municipally-owned airport in Wainscott, after a season filled with legal challenges to the town’s attempts to impose restrictions on traffic that can access the airport.
At the Town Board’s June 7 work session, attorney Bill O’Connor of Cooley Law, who has been working with the town on a plan to close the airport and re-open it as a private airport with restrictions on type, time and frequency of aircraft that can use the airport, said the town had experienced “significant litigation starting in February of this year… challenged by a small minority with seemingly unending funds.”
“Because of the overwhelming amount of litigation, we have been asked to begin the process of understanding and completing the steps to close JPX (the new identifier for the airport) as soon as legally possible,” he added. “Unless the town can achieve the community’s desire in the near term, the town must pursue a path to closure.”
Mr. O’Connor added that he would discuss the details of the timing of the closure in a closed-door executive session after the work session.
The town had been attempting to close the airport, known by the FAA identifier HTO, for just over a day in mid-May, reopening as a private airport with the identifier JPX. But do to three lawsuits over the changes brought in Suffolk County court this year, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against going forward with the change, and is currently weighing whether to grant the litigants — Blade Air Mobility, East End Hangars and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open — an injunction against the town proceeding with the change.
But due to cycles of FAA chart generation, the FAA insisted the town keep the new airport identifier, since that is how the airport now appears on the agency’s charts, in the interest of public safety.
Board members spoke after Mr. O’Connor’s statement, which included an overview of several other open pieces of litigation against the town over the airport.
New board member Cate Rogers, who said on the campaign trail that she was interested in balancing the concerns of airport users and the community, said “the status quo is unsustainable” given the mountain of litigation the airport is facing.
Councilman David Lys said he doesn’t support closure of the airport but he does support meaningful changes, and he also supports asking Mr. O’Connor to look into the process of closing the airport.
Longtime former Town Board Airport Liaison Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee always had an open door to hear from constituents and users of the airport.
“i really felt we struck a balance back there with laws in 2015 that were struck down by the courts,” she said. “I’m at a crossroads with the community’s desire for a balanced airport. If that can’t be achieved, we may be left with no other choice than closure.”
Several members of the public spoke up in favor of looking into closing the airport, though one pilot was hopping mad.
Kathryn Slye, a recreational pilot, said she was shocked by the town board’s decision, and by the fact that they made the names of the litigants in publicly accessible court records available to the public at the meeting.
Most, though, said they understood the town’s position.
“I would like to commend you for so many years of trying to bring about peace,” said Patricia Currie. “I was shocked by the ‘air rage’ expressed by Kathryn Slye. I don’t see why any public servant should have to listen to this, time and time again.”
“I’m astounded, I’m shocked and so disappointed by the spin, again, of the number one pilot who brings her rhetoric of heightened discontent, when the majority of community has been overwrought with the traffic,” said Cynthia McGowin of Sag Harbor. “Here we go again.”
“This is a very difficult decision to be making, but I do very much appreciate your efforts,” said Teresa McCaskie, a longtime advocate against helicopter noise on the North Fork.
“I want to applaud the board for its ongoing courage and conviction,” said John Kirrane of the Southampton Airport Noise Advisory Committee. “Among those of us who were skeptical about restrictions (at the airport), I don’t think anyone could have imagined the volume (of litigation). It makes it more apparent that whatever you try to do to impose reasonable restrictions is not going to happen. Their actions in court are evidence they have no interest in compromise.”