Unfinished Business

East Hampton officials hope to take the battle over control of the town airport to the Supreme Court next year, a matter of unfinished business that tops the town board’s agenda for 2017. The to-do list is long and getting longer every day, but how to effectively limit noise remains a huge and pressing challenge, both locally and for federal regulators.

Opinions differ about the November federal appeals court decision that blocked the town’s 2015 law aimed at reducing aircraft noise. At its core, the court said the town should have obtained Federal Aviation Administration approval before imposing curfews and other measures. Following this setback, serious discussion arose about whether the town should be in the airport business at all and if the time had come to simply shut it down. Where once voices were few for closing the place altogether, an increasing number of sober-minded residents and even some elected officials are now wondering about its very existence. 

Despite threats from pilots and charter helicopter operators, all it would take to tear up the tarmac for good is a three-vote majority of the East Hampton Town Board. As the regional aviation industry and its local supporters continued to fight, this opposition to regulation increased the risk that someday soon there might be no airport here at all other than the modest private strip in Montauk. 

In some ways, the struggle over the airport echoes many other problems facing town officials, among them illegal short-term rentals that eat up available affordable housing and add unwelcome churn to many neighborhoods. Some observers of the real estate scene say the trend toward week or weekend stays, as opposed to monthly or season-long leases, has had a harmful effect on sales. This means that short-termers not only disrupt quiet residential streets but also may be helping to change the South Fork economy in harmful ways. 

Affordable work-force housing is a huge challenge that will continue in 2017. The town’s revised accessory apartment rules may be a good start, but there is reason to suspect that a much more aggressive approach will be needed to have a meaningful effect. 

Noise is also central to the struggle over nightlife, particularly in Montauk. Now, as the town is poised to liberalize rules about outdoor dining, thought must be given to preventing the hamlet’s sidewalks from turning into one long party. For years, loose rules about amplified music have contributed to an unpleasant background thud on weekends. Getting ahead of this before summer should be a priority.

On the environmental front, there is progress. If it is not allowed to become a slush for dubious purposes, the setting aside — up to 20 percent — of community preservation fund income for water quality improvement, okayed by voters in November, could do really good things. Among ideas under consideration is helping to pay for septic waste improvement on private property in select areas. Managed correctly, this could eventually lead to the reopening of off-limits shellfishing areas and other benefits. 

East Hampton town has its own high-minded goals for shifting to renewable energy and signals are promising for a major offshore wind farm that would be plugged into the electrical grid right here. The project would include demand-reduction measures, something the town, guided by recent state rules about residential efficiency, is beginning to promote. One key will be finding and retaining qualified Building Department staff to make the state requirements a reality.

Also ahead is the completion of the so-called hamlet studies for Montauk, areas of East Hampton outside the village, Amagansett, Springs, and Wainscott. Recommendations in the final report will be fodder for heated discussion next year about commercial development and whether zoning changes might be necessary to control growth.

If this year was challenging for town officials, 2017 is likely to be doubly so. Residents should pay close attention to what is expected to be one of the highest-stakes periods ever for Town Hall and the community’s future.