Make no mistake, a significant change in East Hampton Airport policy appears in the offing. After years of confrontation, pilots groups and anti-noise activists are talking to one another at last, with a sense of purpose and optimism about the future.
For far too long, much needed and sensible discussions about noise limits and the size of the airport were close to impossible. Some involved in the debate, including the majority of the previous East Hampton Town Board, clung to the idea that the only way to keep the airfield alive and well was by taking money from the Federal Aviation Administration even though accepting Washington’s money required so-called grant assurances that the airport be operated as the agency saw fit. A number of pilots and owners of aviation businesses, whose livelihoods depend on the airport, believed that the federal obligations were their only hedge against catastrophe. They would tell you in all seriousness that the ultimate goal of the anti-noise movement was shutting the field down altogether.
The old assumptions are now changing, thanks in part to the heavy use of the airport by commercial helicopter companies whose noisy aircraft run passengers in and out of the city at rates running into the thousands of dollars each way. This has made allies of former adversaries. Most of those concerned, including residents and elected officials of other neighboring communities, now agree that helicopters are the real problem and that unless their effects are lessened, public opposition to the airport is destined to reach a tipping point.
In the context of a new, more conciliatory town board, progress is being made. A committee coordinated by Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez recently determined that the airport could actually fund itself. This is critical, as several F.A.A. grant agreements are set to expire soon, which will give the town a better chance of placing limits on helicopters.
A subcommittee of the group Ms. Burke-Gonzalez assembled told the town board that airport income from landing fees, rents, and fuel sales, among other sources, would be enough to cover borrowing more than $4 million this year and even more in 2015 and beyond. The math says that repairs and modest upgrades can be accomplished without taking another cent of Washington’s money, freeing the town from some regulatory oversight and increasing its options on noise control.
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, in just her freshman year as a town board member, is to be congratulated for making the apparently impossible — getting both sides to sit down together — a reality. The difficult work of coming up with meaningful policy changes is yet to be done, but the groundwork appears to have been set.