As citizens groups in Southampton Town continue to mobilize protests about the rerouting of the majority of helicopters using East Hampton Airport onto a path primarily over their town, the East Hampton Town Board is also grappling with airport decision-making. Several members repeated suggestions this week that, if town officials are not in control of airport matters, the town should abandon its ownership and privatize the facility.
Limits to the town’s ability to regulate the airport, because of Federal Aviation Administration oversight, have long been at the center of a debate about whether the town should spurn federal airport money in order to gain more control over airport use and noise control, or if that could be achieved by pursuing an application to the F.A.A.
In board discussions on Aug. 14 and on Tuesday, both Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley suggested that the town should divest itself of the airport.
Both have been critical of Councilman Dominick Stanzione, who as liaison to the airport was the only board member involved in recent discussions that led to the use of helicopter flight paths over the high-voltage electrical transmission lines near East Hampton Airport, taking them primarily over East Hampton Town’s western neighbor, to and from an F.A.A.-approved east-west flight path along Long Island’s north shore.
The discussions involved town-hired air traffic controllers, working from a control tower just put into use this season, as well as airport users, Mr. Stanzione said.
“I’ll just restate that the route change was a return to a prior, existing route,” he said. The route was changed in 2005, after a near miss in the air, with planes routed over the Northwest section of East Hampton instead. Activists complaining of the route change reported another near miss late last week, but that incident is unsubstantiated.
Mr. Stanzione said the decision was based on the traffic controllers’ “professional air traffic management” and assessment of safety, with a route over fewer houses the goal.
But Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley said the controllers were taking direction from Mr. Stanzione, and that the routing decision should have been made by the entire town board.
“It’s not a political decision, to spread pain or make judgments about whose house was going to get flown over and whose wasn’t,” Mr. Stanzione said Tuesday, expressing concern about politicizing the decision. “I’m much more comfortable with the professional standards approach.”
However, he said, “I should have come to the board.”
Board members wrangled over how much authority is held by the traffic controllers and how much by the town. “Did we give them the authority to choose the route?” Councilwoman Theresa Quigley asked.
“Wouldn’t that be their core competency?” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said. The town’s contract with Robinson Aviation, the company providing the air traffic controllers, gives them the ability to direct traffic within the controlled airspace — a 4.8-mile radius from the airport — John Jilnicki, the town attorney, said, but it “doesn’t speak to how they do that.”
“We don’t have authority over how they perform their federal function,” he said of the F.A.A.-sanctioned controllers.
“I personally think that if we don’t have any control over the flight paths, then we shouldn’t be the owners. Why don’t we privatize it?” Ms. Quigley asked. For town officials to leave the selection of flight paths to air traffic controllers, she said, is an “abdication of my responsibility” to respond to constituents’ concerns.
She asked Mr. Jilnicki if the town could be held liable should an accident occur with aircraft using the selected route.
“I don’t believe so,” Mr. Jilnicki replied, “because we don’t direct traffic in the air.” Under federal law, he said, “we have no right to direct traffic.”
But, Mr. Jilnicki said, if a litigant took the position that an accident was related to a route dictated by the town, it could be asserted that the town was responsible.
Mr. Wilkinson said the air traffic controllers “say without a doubt that they were told what route” to send aircraft on. “Given that, does the town have an exposure?” he asked.
“We could,” Mr. Jilnicki replied.
“And I’m saying, if we don’t control, and we have an exposure, we should sell this thing,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
“That’s a good reason for us to not be involved, right there,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. He said last week that if town officials want more control, perhaps they should eschew new F.A.A. grants and allow existing agreements with the agency regarding airport rules to expire. “It’s pretty clear that we don’t control the airport under F.A.A. grants,” he said later in the meeting on Tuesday.
“I don’t believe that’s true,” Ms. Quigley said.
“Well, what you believe and what is may not be the same,” Mr. Van Scoyoc replied.
Ms. Quigley sponsored recent resolutions approved by the board to begin the process of compiling noise data that could be used to make a case to the F.A.A. for more local control, even under grant-related agreements.
At the airport on Sunday, members of the Quiet Skies Coalition held a rally to protest the new helicopter route. A number of the 50 or so protestors were residents of Southampton Town.
Representative Tim Bishop is expected to attend a meeting tonight to discuss helicopter noise at the Bridgehampton Community Center on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. A newly formed group has an online petition at signon.org/sign/helicopter-noise-problem calling for a stop to flights over Noyac, North Sea, Bridgehampton, and Sag Harbor until a joint two-town task force can develop remedies, and the environmental impacts of airport noise and pollution can be studied. As of yesterday, it had 276 signatures.
According to July data on noise complaints to the town’s hotline at 537-LOUD, as well as those made online or otherwise, 1,498 complaints were made by 114 different households outside East Hampton Town, with the majority from Sag Harbor. Forty-eight households in East Hampton generated 445 complaints about noise in July. Jet noise prompted 186, or 42 percent, of those complaints. Helicopter noise accounted for 33 percent, or 145 complaints, and complaints about propeller planes accounted for 101 complaints, or 23 percent.