East Hampton moves to ban helicopters on summer weekends

02/06/2015 2:00 PM |
A helicopter at East Hampton Airport. (Credit: Kyril Bromley/The East Hampton Press, file)

A helicopter at East Hampton Airport. (Credit: Kyril Bromley/The East Hampton Press, file)

Battle lines have been drawn by the Town of East Hampton in the war over excessive helicopter noise plaguing East End residents, especially those on the North Fork, Shelter Island and around the airport.

The board has crafted a local law to take control of the town’s airport and put significant restrictions on aircraft traffic.

The draft law, still subject to a public hearing and a vote, was announced at an East Hampton Town Board work session Wednesday and would:

• ban all helicopters on weekends during the summer season;

• impose a mandatory curfew for all aircraft from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.;

• extend the curfew on what the board has determined “noisy” aircraft from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m.; and

• limit operations of noisy aircraft of one trip, either arrival or departure, per week during the summer season.

The board can take this action because contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration, which controlled the airport, expired on December 31. East Hampton had taken federal money in 2001 for airport infrastructure and other expenses, but the dollars came with quid pro quos in the form of “grant assurances.” This meant the airport could be open to aircraft traffic around the clock throughout the year, and the town could not discriminate against types of planes or helicopters using the facility.

Not accepting federal money when the calendar turned to 2015 means the town can now impose restrictions.

Complaints about low-lying and extremely loud aircraft buzzing in and out of East Hampton, has spurred strong protests for years, reaching a pinnacle last summer and fall. According to airport records, from January to September 2014 there were 22,350 take offs and landings at the East Hampton Airport, and over the same time frame there were 22,700 complaints logged about excessive noise. About 15 percent of the complaints came from Shelter Island residents.

Kathleen Cunningham, a director of the East Hampton-based Quiet Skies Coalition, said the East Hampton board’s action was “historic.” Ms. Cunningham added that the board had “addressed the majority of our concerns in a reasonable and equitable way, despite what aviation interest are saying. The town is responsible for the health, welfare and safety of all citizens, and this decision does just that.”

The Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition, a group that includes helicopter pilots, aircraft companies and some local businesses, vehemently opposes the restrictions.

Loren Riegelhaupt, who works for SKDKnickerbocker, an international public relations firm, and a spokesman for FEHAC, released a statement Wednesday accusing the East Hampton board of taking “unprecedented and drastic” steps by suggesting the restrictions.

“The Town Board’s recommendations, if enacted, will not only put hardworking pilots out of work,” Mr. Riegelhaupt’s statement continued,” but will also have a dramatic and harmful impact on all of the local small business that rely on a strong real estate market and summer visitors.”

Cindy Herbst, an owner of Sound Aircraft at East Hampton Airport, agrees. Her company handles all ground services for aviation companies, including fueling, catering service, handling baggage and other customer services.

The new restrictions will “effectively take away all of our business,” Ms. Herbst said, noting that the summer season restrictions will be devastating. Sound Aircraft’s staff of 12 year-round employees swells to 20 during the summer. If the board’s action becomes law, Ms. Herbst will have to lay off employees.

“I don’t know how we’ll be able to sustain ourselves,” she said.

But Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who won a seat on the East Hampton board in November 2013 running on a platform of curbing excessive noise, said the proposed restrictions are far from draconian. She noted that Harris Miller Miller & Hanson, a Burlington Massachusetts-based noise consulting service, found that the new law would affect 31 percent of operations, “while addressing 74 percent of complaints.”

The decision was not made quickly or easily, said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who is the board’s liaison to the airport, but is the result of multiple studies and “years of “analyses, studies pubic outreach and community meetings. “

A high level legal battle has already been joined, with the FEHAC filing a legal action in federal court, maintaining that the FAA didn’t have the right to waive the grant assurances and East Hampton had failed to maintain “critical safety and security holes at the airport,” according to Mr. Riegelhaupt.

On the other side, two East Hampton residents, Peter Wolf, an author and expert on land uses, and Kenneth Lipper, a former deputy mayor of New York City, have hired a top Manhattan law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, an international law firm with more than 100 attorneys, to make the case that the East Hampton board has every right to take control of the airport and impose restrictions.

A public hearing is tentatively scheduled in East Hampton for March 5, with final action on the proposed law expected later in the month.

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