North Fork residents and elected officials were hopping mad at a workshop presented by the Federal Aviation Administration on the North Shore Helicopter Route at Riverhead Middle School Wednesday night.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said at the workshop that she and several other elected officials are planning a press conference calling for the FAA to hold a formal public hearing on the helicopter route, which was formally established in 2012 and has caused a dramatic increase in helicopter traffic over portions of the North Fork.
The FAA’s rule, its first-ever regulation on helicopter traffic, was greeted with great fanfare when it first became mandatory in 2012, pushed by New York Senator Charles Schumer as a way to alleviate helicopter noise. Pilots had begun following the route on a voluntary basis in 2008. In 2016, the rule was extended to Aug. 6, 2020, over the objections of many East End lawmakers.
Mr. Schumer also called this week for a formal public hearing.
The rule requires helicopters using the North Shore Route to travel one mile offshore at a height of at least 2,500 feet — which has proved helpful to North Shore residents on western Long Island.
The problem for East Enders is that the rule does not apply to helicopters on their final approach to their landing point at the East Hampton Airport, where they cross over the North Fork, Shelter Island and Noyac, Sag Harbor and the Northwest Woods.
East End Congressman Lee Zeldin managed earlier this fall to include language requiring the FAA to reassess the North Shore Route “to address the noise impact on affected communities, improve altitude enforcement, and consider alternative routes, including an all water route over the Atlantic Ocean,” in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, signed into law in early October. The language requires the FAA hold a public comment period and public hearing in the community for residents to voice their concerns.
Mr. Zeldin’s District Director Mark Woolley, who was at the workshop, said his boss is continuing to press the FAA for a real hearing.
“The turnout is excellent,” he said, “but this is not what the law states. The congressman wants residents to be heard.”
Throughout the evening, more than 100 people dropped in, but most left unfulfilled with the FAA’s outreach attempt, which included several stations, manned by about 15 FAA employees, with videos, charts and flight data explaining the North Shore Route and its associated traffic. At the final station, residents could submit written comment for the record.
Residents didn’t mince words when asked what they thought of the the workshop.
“This is called divide-and-conquer,” said Tracy Levy of Laurel. “They’re trying to keep us disjointed. This is useless deflection.”
Ms. Levy said helicopter noise is “obnoxious” over her house from the first nice weekend in spring through Thanksgiving, and added that the FAA representatives she spoke to at the workshop were middlemen, not decision-makers.
“I demand a public hearing right now,” she said.
Southold Town Councilman Bob Ghosio pointed out one map presented by the FAA, showing helicopter flights the week of Aug. 5 through Aug. 11, 2018, that he said told the whole story, with a thick green line of helicopters cutting through the North Fork just west of the Mattituck Inlet, and thinner lines of flight paths cutting across Peconic and the Orient causeway.
“How many flights are going across Georgica and Sagaponack (on the South Fork)?” he asked. “They have this all here like we don’t know this. We live this.”
“This isn’t a hearing,” he added. “The legislation requires a hearing.”
FAA Spokesman Jim Peters said the Riverhead workshop is the second of three workshops being held this week. The first was held Tuesday, Nov. 13 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, and the third is scheduled for this evening, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at Vaughn College in Flushing, Queens.
Mr. Peters said around 15 people showed up for the workshop at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, but he was impressed by the turnout at the Riverhead meeting.
“To us, this is a good indicator about how people feel,” he said. “I’m hoping people take the time to talk to us.”
“We haven’t made any decisions what to do,” he added. “The rule is set to expire on Aug. 5, 2020. “We could amend it, let it go out of business, or take other action.”
Victor Mevo, an Aviation Safety Inspector with the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Farmingdale, is a helicopter pilot with decades of experience, flying both commercially and for the New York City Police Department.
“The North Fork is obviously bearing the brunt of all transitions” to the East Hampton Airport, he said.
He added that, when he would fly helicopters out on Long Island before the North Shore Route was established, he would follow the Long Island Rail Road tracks out to Garden City until he was outside of airspace controlled by JFK International Airport, and would then transition southward to fly along the Atlantic shoreline.
“I could do this faster,” he said.
But once the North Shore Route became established, he said, many pilots began flying the new route, even though they are still permitted to fly along the South Shore.
Mr. Mevo said his office, long tasked with aviation safety, is now also charged with handling noise complaints.
“We’re taking everything seriously,” he said. “This is where change is taking place.”
“Notice that not a single helicopter lands on the North Shore, ever,” said John Cullen of Northville while looking over the maps. Mr. Cullen said his house is the “bulls-eye” of where helicopters begin to transition over land en route to East Hampton.
“This is a way to skirt around actually having a public hearing,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. “This is a disservice to what we are supposed to be doing.”
“This is not what the public was expecting,” said Teresa McCaskie of the Southold Town helicopter noise steering committee. “I believe the FAA needs to be held accountable to have a public hearing, as signed in the legislation by the President of the United States.”
The FAA is accepting public comment online here through Jan. 2, 2019.