Airport Noise: Let’s Try Another Tack

    Concerned citizens and members of the Quiet Skies Coalition gathered at LTV Studios on Oct. 26 to hear from a panel led by Sheila Jones, an attorney specializing in environmental litigation and a partner at the Denver-based law firm Holland & Hart, discussing Federal Aviation Administration grants for the East Hampton airport.
    Should East Hampton Town choose not to accept the grants, Ms. Jones was more encouraging on its prospects for airport control than Peter Kirsch, an attorney specializing in aviation law, had been earlier last month at the town board’s invitation. Mr. Kirsch gave a bleak assessment that most of the grant assurances simply echo federal law and cannot be countermanded.
    Ms. Jones explained that “the [Federal Aviation Administration] has the authority to regulate aircraft routes, manage airspace, and also regulate noise at its source,” but said there was also a law that allows the “proprietors” of airports to “manage environmental impact” as they see fit.
    She cited the example of the East 34th Street Heliport in Manhattan, which imposed a curfew, as well as limitations on hours of operation, to counter noise issues. The restrictions were challenged, but were upheld in court as “non-discriminatory.”
    “You must define a proposal that looks to dealing with the noise in a rather surgical way,” she said. “If you do not, you may very well lose.”
    The town could well incur lawsuits if it decided not to take more federal money, negating its contractual agreement with the federal government (a possibility that could occur as soon as 2014), and began imposing restrictions on the airport to deal with the ever-increasing noise, especially from helicopters. Ms. Jones explained that if the F.A.A. decided that any of the restrictions were unreasonable or discriminatory, it could sue the town, a costly prospect.
    To forestall that possibility, she said, the town might explore other methods of noise control.
    “If a proprietor is going to regulate noise, they have to use a balanced approach,” she said. “It means you must look at measures to address noise abatement that do not affect airport operations or hours, such as sound barriers, acquiring land, and other measures, first.”
    Even if the town enforces a local noise standard in what it believes to be a non-discriminatory way, the F.A.A. could still challenge it, she said. although there would be no fear of breaching a contract.
    Ms. Jones outlined the possibility of imposing restrictions on helicopters following specific procedures outlined under the Airport Noise Capacity Act of 1990.
    “If ANCA applies, and you’re trying to deal with noise from [helicopters], you simply follow the procedure, there is no F.A.A. approval,” she said. “You’re done.”
    “Yes, there may be more cost involved, as well as studies,” she said. “But ANCA is not a restriction in any sense of the word, in a legal or practical sense.” If East Hampton chose not to follow the ANCA protocol, she cautioned, it could not receive any F.A.A. money. “But from the perspective of East Hampton, if you’re going to stop taking money in the future, you don’t much care.”
    Jim Matthews, chairman of the Northwest Alliance, a group of concerned residents in that part of town, weighed in on the negative impacts of aircraft noise, offering disconcerting evidence of damage both to the environment, in particular Northwest Creek, and to wildlife.
    All incoming helicopter traffic heads straight down the creek, he said, which was not only “a bit of a horror to those taxpayers who enjoyed the tranquillity,” but also took its toll on bald eagles, American black ducks, raccoons, and geese. “They begin to flee,” said Mr. Matthews. “Fleeing interferes with their ability to feed, their mating behavior, brooding, the raising of young, and the eventual abandonment of their habitat.
    Studies have shown that people who live near airports have higher blood pressure and children have lower attention spans, he added, asserting that in its second year of service the dedicated noise-complaint line, 537-LOUD, had received one phone call for every three flights that went overhead.
    “That is human suffering,” said Mr. Matthews. “It’s a human representation of acute discomfort.”