For the first time, the veil has been pulled back on what the Federal Aviation Administration would and would not do in the matter of noise control at and around East Hampton Airport. In a detailed response to a request for clarity from Representative Tim Bishop, the agency said it would not pursue legal action once certain “grant assurances” expire if the town decided to impose what it calls “reasonable” restrictions there.
The long fight over use of the airport has become more intense as the years have gone by and more people have come to live under its approach paths. Then, too, more and more helicopters are using East Hampton Airport, irritating people well beyond the town’s borders. It need not be this way. The airport has been an unnecessarily divisive problem for a town beset by plenty of other challenges — and one that pits a relatively small number of aircraft owners and fixed-base operators against thousands of residents whose lives and weekends are disrupted.
A control system to be in place this summer holds some promise of noise reduction, but will not be an entirely satisfactory solution. Helicopters will still chuff at the air as they approach and depart. Jet flights at the crack of dawn will still rattle windows and disturb the peace as they roar over backyards.
Airport interests genuinely fear that the facility could one day be closed, which is precisely why they are so eager to see F.A.A. oversight continue. As the recent memo from the administration says, new grants would obligate it to seek to block any locally imposed restrictions. A recent example is an East Hampton Town Board decision in December to seek money from Washington for deer fence repairs that would cost less than the town already has paid out of pocket for a lawyer to consult on airport affairs. The town could clearly afford to do the work itself, and still has the chance to avoid F.A.A. money for the project even though airport interests have convinced town officials that their only hope lies in Washington.
If fear — rational or not — that the airport could be mothballed is what stands in the way of meaningful noise reduction, that is the first problem that must be addressed to begin to break the logjam. Pilots and airport business owners must be assured that their hobbies and livelihoods will not be at risk. Only then will they stand aside and stop their efforts to block local control by convincing officials to take more money from the F.A.A.
A solution appears tantalizingly close.