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East End officials demand FAA hold hearing on controversial helicopter route

After a Federal Aviation Administration workshop held in Riverhead earlier this month left residents and elected officials alike dissatisfied, elected officials gathered at Iron Pier Beach in Jamesport Wednesday to demand the FAA hold a proper public hearing on the matter.

The workshop, meant to allow residents an opportunity to file complaints over the spike in helicopters flying across the North Fork, only allowed attendees to submit written statements.

“As elected officials standing up here, we know all too well what a public hearing is supposed to look like,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. “The workshops [the FAA] held were more equivalent to a junior high school science fair or a child’s show and tell. The residents of the East End deserve so much more from this agency,” she said.

In October, President Trump signed the bill that included the amendment proposed by Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to require the FAA to hold public hearings on the issue.

First Congressional District Director Mark Woolley spoke on behalf of Mr. Zeldin Wednesday, assuring that they understand the concerns and are equally frustrated.

“We understand what it means to have these helicopters and low flying planes come right over your house — low enough that if they wanted to, they could probably join the barbecue on a nice summer day,” Mr. Wooley said. “This is far from done.”

Senator Charles Schumer penned a letter to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell to also demand a public hearing. “The intent of the legislation was crystal clear,” Mr. Schumer wrote in the letter, in which he voiced support for an all-water route around Orient Point.

Jim Peters, a spokesperson for the FAA Eastern Region, said that the public workshop format gives more people the opportunity to address their concerns as opposed to a traditional meeting.

“We believe this was the best opportunity to talk with people who are interested in finding out how things are going,” he said.

Together, the officials are calling for an all-water route to replace the controversial North Shore Route. Ms. Jens-Smith also said there should be a no-fly area over the United Riverhead Terminal tanks on Sound Shore Road.

“The FAA should not be pitting the North Fork and the South Fork against each other,” she said, adding that East End residents should be heard over the helicopter companies.

South Shore officials, including Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and county legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) both spoke in support of the all-water route as well as checks on the East Hampton airport.

“We need approval of reasonable restrictions on the [East Hampton airport,] whether it be curfews, whether it be restrictions on the number of flights, all those things that the Town of East Hampton was trying to do,” Mr. Thiele said.

Both Riverhead and Southold towns formed helicopter noise committees in response to the North Shore Route. Southold Councilman Bob Ghosio, who serves as Town Board liaison to the helicopter noise steering committee, said that the route should be rewritten to close loopholes for pilots.

“In the summer, quite frankly it is a barrage,” he said of helicopter noise.

Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent chairs the helicopter task force in Riverhead and urged residents to keep speaking up on the issue. “The format of the hearing was simply an attempt to stifle voices,” she said. “It is not acceptable that our quality of life should take a nose dive simply because there are those who can afford to fly to the Hamptons to save time and avoid traffic on the LIE.”

Some officials were exasperate in their plea to the FAA.

“This is nothing new,” Mr. Thiele added. “[The FAA] have ignored us.”

Riverhead Councilman Tim Hubbard agreed, adding that a public hearing will not be the end of the battle. “In my opinion, [the public hearing] is going to fall on deaf ears. We need to take it to the next step,” he said, suggesting the government consider cutting funding to the organization. “Hit ‘em where it hurts.”

FAA officials have not indicated whether they will hold a public hearing, but comments can be submitted online or by mail to the FAA until Jan. 2, 2019.

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Photo caption: Southold Councilman Bob Ghosio spoke at the meeting Wednesday. (Tara Smith photo)