Over coffee and bagels, two dozen constituents met with Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) early Tuesday morning at the American Legion in Southold.
The informal morning meeting gave Mr. Zeldin the chance to hear directly from constituents on the North Fork.
While he touched on issues like dredging, immigration and health care during his opening remarks, one topic dominated the entire 90-minute conversation: helicopter noise. After all, this past Memorial Day weekend was only the beginning for what many are dreading as the start of helicopter season.
One resident who lives near the quiet Downs Farm Preserve in Cutchogue said she counted 19 helicopters pass by in one hour Monday.
Mr. Zeldin said he understands the concerns and reiterated his stance that pilots should be taking an all-water route along either shore to get to the Hamptons.
“Traffic bound for the South Fork should be taking an Atlantic Ocean route to get there,” the congressman said.
“On a perfectly sunny Monday yesterday, visibility is not an issue … there’s no good excuse for the pilots,” he added.
Mr. Zeldin said he is still awaiting a response from the Federal Aviation Administration to a letter he sent to acting regional administrator Maria Stanco earlier this month requesting that true public hearings be held on the North Fork and that an all-water route be implemented ahead of the peak season.
The FAA allegedly sent a letter to Mr. Zeldin’s office in March, touting the public workshop session in November as a success and said they were still reviewing comments received as they reassess the North Shore Route.
But Mr. Zeldin said Tuesday that his office never received that letter and said that it was misleading because many residents he spoke to were dissatisfied with the workshop format.
While both Riverhead and Southold towns have formed helicopter task force committees to address the issue on behalf of residents, Mr. Zeldin urged residents to contact the FAA in droves.
One resident who files multiple complaints could be easily brushed off by the agency, he said.
“The FAA views that as one person with too much time on their hands,” he said.
According to Mr. Zeldin’s district director, Mark Woolley, the FAA has received 337 complaints from residents using the online portal, which does not factor in phone calls, letters and in-person complaints lodged.
Some attendees at the forum asked what motivates pilots to use transition points over the North Fork. Is it safety? Time? Cost?
“They can get more round trips in if they cut the distance,” Mr. Zeldin replied, noting that time and cost play heavily into the decision.
“At the end of the day you could be losing two round trips if you go all the way around,” the congressman said.
Southold resident Teresa McCaskie, who is also a member of Southold Town’s helicopter noise steering committee, said residents continue to suffer as a result of helicopters that are “totally abusing” the North Fork.
Ms. McCaskie and several others said an all-water route over the Atlantic Ocean should be used. Mr. Zeldin agreed, but said that he hasn’t received a definitive answer from FAA officials yet.
The North Shore Route was extended in 2016 and will expire in 2020, according to the Office of the Federal Register. “The FAA finds it necessary to extend the rule for an additional four years to preserve the current operating environment while the FAA conducts ongoing helicopter research that will be considered to determine appropriate future actions,” the 2016 decision states.
Mr. Zeldin expressed fear Tuesday that the route could again be extended without any local input.
With a 2020 deadline quickly approaching, the congressman called on New York’s U.S. senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to help advocate for North Fork residents.
Mr. Schumer sent a letter in November to FAA officials calling for a public hearing to be held on the unpopular helicopter route. “The workshops failed to provide the opportunity for public testimony at a hearing and left some communities dissatisfied,” Mr. Schumer wrote. “To address this, the FAA should promptly schedule a public hearing at a time and place that will maximize participation from Long Island’s communities.”
In his letter, Mr. Schumer stated that he does support an all-water route around Orient Point.
Mr. Zeldin said the letter should be accompanied by continued bipartisan action and support.
“This requires the two senators to weigh in more forcefully,” he said. “It requires all three of our signatures.”
Photo caption: Congressman Lee Zeldin speaks at an informal gathering with residents Tuesday morning. (Credit: Tara Smith)