Air traffic controllers have shifted helicopter traffic to and from East Hampton Airport onto an old route, along power lines and over Jessup’s Neck in Southampton, prompting complaints from residents living below. Some of them had some questions on Tuesday for Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the town board’s airport liaison.
“Is there a new route?” Supervisor Bill Wilkinson asked. “How did the new route come about?”
Mr. Stanzione said that in meetings between pilots and the controllers, in which he had participated, it was determined that traffic would be asked to use the power line route, which sends aircraft primarily over Southampton Town rather than over the Northwest Creek area of East Hampton.
“Their professional opinion was that the safest route was over the fewest homes,” Mr. Stanzione said.
“And who are we to do that to Southampton?” Ms. Quigley asked. “The point isn’t where the route is, the point is, how was the decision made?”
Several speakers at an East Hampton Town Board meeting earlier this month had said they were told Mr. Stanzione had dictated the new route, a charge the councilman refuted. But Ms. Quigley said that she did not necessarily believe Mr. Stanzione’s version of events.
In erecting the control tower and hiring the controllers, town officials had to first have the Federal Aviation Administration classify the air space around the airport as a controlled zone. By having controllers dictate the routes that aircraft — particularly helicopters — take into and out of the airport, it was asserted, the noise impact could be spread out, providing some relief for those living under frequently used paths.
“No town councilperson should be making decisions on their own that impact the town,” Ms. Quigley said. “It’s a complete abuse of process. To find out that, especially a fellow Republican, is doing things clandestinely, is startling, and makes us look like fools.”
“We as a town should have had some say in the route,” Ms. Quigley said. “There is no ability of anyone in the town government to direct helicopter traffic,” Mr. Stanzione replied.
The board argued over just how much control the town has over decisions affecting the airport, a key factor in contentious, longstanding community discussions about noise control and the center of debate about whether East Hampton should continue to take F.A.A. money, which obligates the town to “grant assurances” about how the airport is run.
“But we have the ability, as the town, to close the airport,” Mr. Wilkinson said. Not so, under the grant obligations, said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc. “If we gave up grant assurances from the F.A.A., then we have the ability to close the airport, as the proprietor,” he said.
“I have a real problem with the airport being a goddamn taxing district, and we don’t have any control of the airport,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Give it to the F.A.A. and let the F.A.A. run it.”
“I’m not going to leave this alone, because it’s a town facility. I have to start to understand what rights the town has,” the supervisor added.
“So you want the town to have control over the airport?” Mr. Van Scoyoc responded. “That would mean not taking F.A.A. grants.”
“That’s ridiculous, Peter,” Mr. Wilkinson retorted. “You go down that road.”
“If we’ve lost control, I will start an initiative to privatize that airport,” he added.
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby noted that the board had “paid an attorney — a very expensive attorney — to answer some of these questions.” The attorney, Peter Kirsch, an aviation specialist, has made several presentations to the board regarding the ability to restrict airport access in order to control noise, both under the F.A.A. obligations and without.
The issue of aircraft noise was the subject of a forum last Thursday sponsored by the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton.
According to Bonnie Schnitta of SoundSense L.L.C., a sound engineer and one of the panelists, an increase in noise above ambient levels of five decibels or greater “is significant and perceivable, and will cause a disturbance.”
She said numerous studies show that increased noise, especially at night, is tied to a loss of productivity and health problems. “At night, I feel very strongly, you should be able to sleep, and sleep undisturbed,” she said, “because there are numerous health factors involved in someone who cannot sleep undisturbed.”
Air routes have a “vast impact area that should be considered if we are going to address this correctly,” said Peter Wolf, a planner and also a panelist. “It’s a problem of courage and governance. These planes do not perform any economic function that’s valuable to the town, and they have no enduring social quality. Under one percent of our community has any use for the airplanes.”
While the rights of aircraft users should be maintained, Mr. Wolf said, the issue should be considered in its proper context. Airport user fees should be “commensurate with the special privileges” and “the trouble they’re causing everyone else,” he said.
Based on laws governing residents’ “peaceful enjoyment” and barring “nuisances,” “there’s an incredible basis here for a class-action suit, if it had to get to that,” Mr. Wolf concluded.
Bruno Schrek, a pilot, said that what is anathema to some is pleasing to others. And, he said, “To say the airport has no intrinsic economic value to us is absurd.” Aircraft owners, he said, are “richer people to help with our property taxes,” who also provide jobs and help maintain property values.