When State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said the crowd gathered at LTV Studios in Wainscott Wednesday night to give the East Hampton Town Board an earful on helicopter noise reminded him of a Peconic County meeting he had a point.
At least 325 people (according to the official East Hampton count) came to the meeting — held just south of the East Hampton Airport, where the noise of arriving and departing planes and helicopters often punctuated the conversation — and they were from every part of these parts.
There was a crew from Shelter Island, and a contingent from the North Fork. There were Southamptonites and a slew of East Hampton residents. What they all seemed to have in common was a desire to see East Hampton declare local control of its airport at the end of this year.
Because East Hampton has taken grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration in the past, the town is currently obligated by the FAA to allow all aircraft access to its airport. These so-called “grant assurances” expire at the end of 2014, and the push has never been greater for the town to assume local control of the airport.
But a group called Friends of the East Hampton Airport, which appears to be based in New Jersey according to the contact information on their website, is collecting donations and lawyering up in anticipation of these changes, and attendees at the meeting urged the town to stay strong in anticipation of a legal battle.
The Friends of the East Hampton Airport are hoping to meet with East Hampton’s leaders soon, according to their website, but “if the town continues to refuse to meet with us by the first week of September, we plan to file a Part 16 Complaint followed up by a Declaratory Judgment Action seeking among other things an acknowledgement that all of the Grant Assurances remain applicable despite the 2005 Settlement Agreement. In short, if they continue to drag their feet and not address very real concerns, then we are taking off the gloves and the real battle
The grant assurances had been slated to end in 2021 before the 2005 settlement.
With the exception of Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, every East End town supervisor showed up for the LTV hearing, and they’d all been at a meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials earlier that afternoon organized by Congressman Tim Bishop.
Southold Town Superviser Scott Russell, who said he was disappointed by the lack of knowledge of the issues by FAA officials sent to a recent forum on helicopters in Southold, said he was somewhat more impressed by the meeting with the FAA on Wednesday, in which he and other town supervisors were told that without the grant assurances, East Hampton may have more leeway in controlling the hours of operation and the type of aircraft that are allowed to use the airport.
Mr. Russell got a big cheer from the crowd when he said Southold passed a resolution Tuesday urging East Hampton to not take any more FAA grant money. The Shelter Island and Southampton town boards have also both recently passed similar resolutions.
Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty said his town banned helicopter landings in 2007.
“We gave up luxury and convenience for our bucolic lifestyle. We want you to do the same,” he said. “We’re on fire on this issue and we’re not going to let go of it.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst didn’t seem too impressed with what she heard from the FAA Wednesday afternoon.
“Hmm, what to say….” she said of the meeting. “The FAA does not regulate helicopters the way they regulate fixed wing aircraft.”
She said times have changed and the FAA must do more to regulate helicopters.
“I think they did hear us,” she said. “But the opposition is lawyering up and we on the local level need to be protected from lawsuits.”
Before the public comment began, East Hampton Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who serves as the town board’s liaison to the airport, read a statement about what East Hampton can do to control the airport. She said East Hampton has no deadline to decide what to do once the grant assurances expire, but the town board “is not going to make a quick decision.”
She said East Hampton will likely make a decision on whether to take any FAA grant money “in the next few weeks.”
“Everyone needs to be realistic. It’s a complicated set of problems,” she said. She asked attendees to fill out a survey on where they live and what type of problems they’re experiencing with aircraft noise so the town could collect data to back up its case.
“The town board is absolutely committed to addressing the noise problem,” she said, adding that East Hampton wants to pursue a solution that best serves both East Hampton and neighboring towns.
“The North Fork bears the brunt and has no benefit,” said Count Legislator Al Krupski. “No one travels to the North Fork on helicopter.”
Bob Malafronte of the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee said numerous helicopter flights over his house don’t even show up on the airport’s records, and his neighbors have corroborated his observations.
“We believe 40 percent of the inbound [flights] have not been counted,” he said.
Jim Matthews of the Northwest Alliance, which oversees the nature preserve at Northwest Creek in East Hampton, said if the flight path were changed so that helicopters flew around Orient Point to avoid the North Fork, as federal lawmakers are pressuring the FAA to do, they’d be traveling directly over the creek.
Mr. Matthews, an animal behavior specialist, was among several scientists in the room who spoke to the biological effects of aircraft noise.
“Science tells us that aircraft noise is extremely destructive to wildlife,” he said, pointing out problems with cardiovascular health, diabetes and attention deficit disorder that can be related to aircraft noise. “It affects us exactly the same…. It’s truly a biologically destructive influence on our nature.
Patricia Currie of Sag Harbor said she hoped the East End would band together to fight legal action against the airport.
“You’re making our life hell. It is time for you to leave,” she said to the aircraft industry. “Take your money and fly away home. And please don’t fly over the federal wildlife preserve at Jessups Neck.”
Planner Peter Wolf said East Hampton’s 2005 comprehensive plan called for “scheduled commercial operations” at the airport to be prohibited, but the town never acted on that recommendation. He said if the town board doesn’t do something about the helicopter noise, “the next step will be a more strident effort to close the airport.”
He urged the board to ban helicopters, establish hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., limit flights to four per hour and set limits on engine decibel level of aircraft that can use the airport.
Ken Lipper of East Hampton said he’d received more than 300 affirmative responses from a survey he sent to his neighbors asking if the airport should remain under local control.
“I wouldn’t worry about a suit from commercial interests if you’re on the right side,” he said.
“You have two choices,” said East Hampton resident Tom MacNiven. “Shut it up or shut it down.”
Margaret Skabry of Peconic, who made the trip around the forks with her husband, John, said she’s at her wit’s end with the helicopter traffic over her house, but if she calls and complains, the helicopters just change their flight path to over her daughter’s house two hamlets away.
“Be the heroes,” she urged the East Hampton Town Board. “We need heroes.”