Town Bows To F.A.A. on Airport Noise

Lengthy process gets longer after judge’s rebuke

East Hampton officials, who have so far been stymied in their effort to cut back air traffic into and out of the town airport — and the accompanying noise that causes complaints across the East End — agreed this week to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to enact new restrictions.

The town board had adopted landing restrictions in 2015 intended to stem the flow of planes that are causing an outcry from those under their flight paths, but a court last year nullified curfews and a once-a-week landing limit for the noisiest planes.

The F.A.A. process, called a Part 161 application, could take years and cost millions, but a judge ruled that it was the only correct procedure, under the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act. 

“It’s our next logical step in seeking meaningful relief,” Town Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said at a meeting of the town board on Tuesday. Councilwoman Sylvia Overby and Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell agreed. 

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the liaison on airport matters, recommended the application. She is expected to offer a resolution at a board meeting tonight spelling out the goal of providing relief to residents bothered by aircraft noise, noting the actions taken to date, and outlining a rationale for the decision to make the Part 161 application. 

The process will include proposed restrictions, which are to be developed in public discussions with the town’s new aviation attorney, Bob O’Connor of Morrison Foerster, and noise consultant, MaryAnn Eagan of Harris Miller Miller & Hansen. They are likely to focus on so-called Stage Three aircraft,  an F.A.A. designation that refers to aircraft that are quieter than Stage One and Two planes, which now includes most helicopters, the source of a majority of noise complaints. 

No other airport owner nationwide has applied to the F.A.A. for permission to restrict takeoffs and landings by Stage Three planes. And only one airport, in Naples, Fla., has successfully gained approval to restrict Stage Two aircraft — solely jets. 

Four airport owners filed but then dropped their applications to the F.A.A. for flight restrictions before they were fully reviewed, while two airports in California, Los Angeles International and the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, went through the whole procedure only to have the applications denied. Both took about a decade, at a cost to L.A. of $3 million and to Burbank of $7 million. 

But Mr. O’Connor told the town board recently that he believes unique circumstances here give East Hampton a better chance. He said it was significant that the judge who ruled that the town had to follow the Part 161 process also said the town had adequate proof of a real noise problem, and therefore that an overnight curfew was reasonable.

Town Councilman Fred Overton, who said he would not be on hand tonight to vote on the resolution authorizing the application, also offered his support for it at Tuesday’s meeting. “I see no alternative, no other way to go at this point,” he said. He expressed concern about the possible outcome but noted his “tremendous respect” for his board colleagues and in particular Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who led the board’s efforts.

“I think with your tenacity, with your hard work, you may succeed,” Mr. Overton said. “I hope you succeed, because I don’t want to see the airport close,” he said. 

Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said at the town board meeting Tuesday that airport-related legal bills incurred since the current administration took the reins in 2014 have reached just over $2 million. The amount includes fees for all legal work, including the ultimately unsuccessful defense of the 2015 airport laws against litigation brought by a coalition of aviation groups. The money was paid from the airport fund, which receives revenues from airport landing fees, aviation fuel sales, and other money raised at the airport. 

Jerry Larsen, a Republican candidate for town board, has raised the question of whether using money from the airport fund for legal defense of airport restrictions was permissible, echoing charges made by the National Business Aviation Association and other aviation groups in a complaint, called a Part 16, to the F.A.A. The complaint, filed after the town adopted the three laws restricting airport use in 2015 and before they were struck down, asserts that the town lacked the authority to enact those laws. 

In addition, citing a press release by town officials that refers to airport funds being used to defend the restrictions in court, as well as previous court cases, the complaint asserts that such spending is disallowed by F.A.A. regulations that define how and when airport revenue may be used for attorney fees. 

“The town is obligated to draw upon general funds and its tax base — and not airport funds — if it is to pursue an anti-airport agenda,” the aviation groups says in the complaint.  

Signed by Steve Brown, the National Business Aviation Association chief operating officer, the complaint asks the F.A.A. not only to bar the town from enacting airport restrictions but to find that its use of airport revenue to defend them in court is incompatible with one of the grant assurances, or binding agreements, the town had entered into with the F.A.A. when accepting federal airport money in the past, and to force the town to “take corrective action.” 

In public forums recently Mr. Larsen has suggested that the town could be forced to repay the airport fund for legal fees from its general fund, and could be subject to fines. 

Both sides filed briefs regarding the complaint, and a determination by the F.A.A. has been awaited since 2015.

“The town is confident in its position, laid out in its papers, that employing attorneys and other professionals for the airport is an airport expenditure,” Michael Sendlenski, the East Hampton Town attorney, said yesterday. There is “enormous precedent” for the use of airport funds to defend airport noise or access restrictions, he said.

Total revenue generated by the airport, through landing fees, fuel sales, and other sources in 2016 was just over $5 million, and is expected to be $5.6 million this year. Anticipated revenue for next year, according to a tentative budget prepared by Supervisor Cantwell, is $5.5 million, with planned expenses estimated at $5.1 million. 

The airport fund had a surplus, or fund balance, at the end of 2016 of $1.8 million; it is expected to end 2017 with a $2.6 million surplus. Combined, the town’s two general funds had a $21.6 million surplus at the end of 2016, with a projected surplus at the end of this year of close to $30 million.