This September is a long-awaited moment in the history of the East Hampton Airport, with the expiration of assurances East Hampton Town made decades ago, as a condition of taking grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, to keep the airport open to a wide variety of aircraft.
As this date looms, the East Hampton Town Board is ramping up meetings with the community to discuss “revisioning” the future of the airport, known by the airport code KHTO, taking into account a long history of complaints about helicopter noise, along with the interests of the users of the airport.
On May 11 of this year, the board discussed several potential futures for the airport, including closing it completely, temporarily closing and then reopening it, eliminating commercial flights and continuing to operate as is.
Consultants HR&A provided the details of an economic impact study of the airport, which found that airport operations and passenger spending generate between $13 million and $26 million annually, while less than one percent of visitors to East Hampton arrive by air.
Environmental consultants HMMH provided a breakdown of complaints about flights using the airport, which, aside from the 2020 pandemic year, have been on the rise for much of the past decade.
At the board’s July 6 work session, consultant Don Wuebbles, a professor at the University of Illinois who provides analysis of climate change impact, presented research his team has conducted that showed that 6 percent of East Hampton’s emissions — 19,000 out of 330,000 metric tons per year — were due to aircraft using the airport. He did point out, however, that if air traffic were diverted to other airports, the change in emissions in East Hampton “doesn’t globally effect things at all.”
East Hampton Town recently declared a Climate Emergency, pledging to take the impact on the climate into account in all the town’s decisions.
The town’s consultant on the airport revisioning process, Bill O’Connor of the law firm Cooley LLP, said topics that will be addressed at upcoming work sessions will include the future zoning of the airport property, a study of where aircraft would be diverted to if operations at KHTO were limited or stopped, and continued community feedback sessions.
“We will be announcing a schedule sometime soon,” he said.
Comments ran the gamut from dozens of members of the public who spoke at the more than four-hour work session on July 6, with many people whose houses lie along the flight route passionately discussing how the airport has impacted their quality of life, while others cautioned that closing the airport could divert traffic to other East End locations like the Montauk Airport.
Many who spoke against the airport made reference to the “1 percenters” who use the airport, a phrase first used during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations against the ultra-rich more than a decade ago. Since then the spread of income inequality has only worsened.
A group of protesters from throughout the region, including the North Fork, Shelter Island and Sag Harbor, gathered outside town hall before the meeting, demanding noise reduction from air traffic en route to the airport.
Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said at the meeting that, while in recent years much of the helicopter traffic had been flying over the North Shore and the North Fork before turning over the Peconic Bay on the final approach to the airport, the so-called “November Route” now goes over much of western Southampton before turning slightly northward across much of the Peconic Bay en route to the airport, which is in Wainscott.
“Residents in the western portion of Southampton are affected by this — Hampton Bays, Tuckahoe, Shinnecock, Noyac, North Sea and Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “We want to ask the Eastern Region Helicopter Council to stop using the November route and use the Sierra route, at a minimum of one mile out if a single engine, five miles out if a double engine, at 5,000 feet.”
Patrick Sullivan of Sagaponack took heart at the information about the climate impact of the airport, urging the board to shut it down, adding that if they did, it would be covered by “every newspaper and TV station in the world,” that “some Americans said we’re going to do everything we can to stop the climate crisis.”
John Cullen of Northville, who serves as the chairman of Riverhead Town’s Helicopter Noise Task Force, shared numerous historical quotes from East Hampton Town officials about disruptiveness of the noise and air traffic surrounding the airport, pointing out that the the helicopters were “polluting the environment with non-essential flights by the top one percent” of people.
“As the airport numbers keep growing up, year after year, our quality of life will keep spiraling down and down,” he said.
Tom Bogdan of Montauk said he’d collected signatures from 1,800 “real live honest citizens of the Town of East Hampton” on a petition stating that “closure is not a solution at all,” adding that closing the airport would just transfer the traffic “from one part of East Hampton to another part of East Hampton.”
He shared figures from the Eastern Region Helicopter Council that showed that 52 to 72 percent of East Hampton flights would be diverted to Montauk’s tiny airport, which “at a minimum translates to 11,500 flights in the first year,” adding that other land-based vehicles would also need to make at least 11,500 trips out to Montauk along the South Fork’s two-lane roads to pick up those passengers.
Jed Hartley of East Hampton, a former Navy fighter pilot, pointed out that there have been great recent advances in aviation, including electric, low-noise VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft that he believes could be the taxicabs of the future.
“This airport’s going to be a very valuable piece of property in just a few years and we want to protect it,” he said.
We’ll have more details as upcoming public sessions are announced.