Airport Saga Anew

Noise complaints up 133 percent so far this year

A year after a court annulled town laws setting overnight curfews at East Hampton Airport, town officials opened discussions this week about whether to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to reinstitute restrictions in order to reduce aircraft noise. The process could cost up to $2 million, or more, and take two or more years.

“If the Town of East Hampton chooses to take this path and they succeed, they would be the first airport in the country to do so,” Bob O’Connor, an attorney who heads the aviation and airports practice at Morrison Foerster, a nationwide firm hired to guide East Hampton in addressing noise complaints, said at a meeting at Town Hall on Monday.

The attorney, along with Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the town board’s liaison on airport matters, met with several groups on Monday. It was followed by a presentation at a town board meeting Tuesday about the requirements for the application process, known as a Part 161 procedure.

 Complaints about aircraft noise rose sharply so far this year, showing a 133-percent increase from January through July this year, although the number of takeoffs and landings in that period were about the same as in 2016. This year, from January through July, 30,821 complaints were lodged, compared to 13,234 complaints for all of 2016. However, because of the way some complaints are filed, it is impossible to determine how many individuals or households filed the complaints, Mary Ellen Eagan, a consultant, said this week.

In order to gain approval from the F.A.A. to restrict aircraft traffic, the town would have to meet a number of requirements under the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which was instituted to ensure standardization of noise restrictions at airports nationwide, The law requires that proposed regulations comply with six standards: that restrictions are reasonable, nonarbitrary, and nondiscriminatory, that they do not create an unreasonable burden on interstate or foreign commerce or burden other airports, that they do not impede safety or conflict with the law, and that there has been sufficient public comment and involvement. Proposed restrictions would be developed by the town board in consultation with its airport advisers and the public over the coming months if the application process gets underway.

Overnight curfews are likely to be among the goals; in effect for two summer seasons before being overruled by the court, the town believes they were effective and generally accepted by the aviation community.

“The curfews worked,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said on Tuesday, “but we need to find something that would get us [able to limit] frequency. That’s the other piece of the puzzle.” A once-a-week limit on visits to the airport by noisy planes, adopted with the curfews in 2015, was barred at the outset by the court after the aviation industry sued. Also to be decided would be which aircraft would be restricted, based on standardized ratings of how noisy they are, from Stage One (noisiest) through Stage Three (quietest).

Only seven airports have attempted to gain F.A.A. permission for local regulation under the federal law, known as ANCA, and none have attempted to regulate Stage Three aircraft, likely to be the focus of East Hampton’s effort. Of the seven, two of the completed Part 161 applications were denied, four were abandoned by the airport owners, and one — from Naples, Fla. — was approved, for Stage Two jets. Naples spent five years on the process at unknown cost. Because many aircraft, including helicopters, fall into the Stage Three category, Mr. O’Connor suggested that East Hampton target them. 

The two Part 161 applications that were fully reviewed and then denied by the F.A.A. were filed by Los Angeles International Airport and the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, also in California. Ruling on these applications took 9 and 10 years and cost $3 million and $7 million, respectively.

While the outcomes of previous attempts might “seem to be very daunting and discouraging,” Mr. O’Connor said, the airports in question were “much larger commercial airports” with more extensive and complex issues to be considered.

“I want to emphasize some of the unique circumstances of this airport and this community,” the attorney said. East Hampton has the advantage of having already tracked and compiled reports on airport operations and noise complaints, he said. He noted that in a ruling regarding a mandated helicopter route along Long Island’s North Shore, the F.A.A. had acknowledged the validity of noise complaints as a legitimate problem caused by air traffic.

And, although the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town’s curfews, saying they could not be adopted without going through the Part 161 process, one of the panel’s judges called the overnight ban on takeoffs and landings reasonable, given the town’s data on disturbance to the community.

“The pros and cons will look very different,” Mr. O’Connor said. “I do believe the restrictions will provide great benefit to the community.”

Speaking for the East Hampton Aviation Association during that group’s session on Monday, Kathryn Slye raised concerns about the veracity of data compiled by consultants on noise complaints logged in to one of two separate systems with differing procedures, and of an economic analysis of the airport and the effects of potential regulations, both of which would have to be assessed in the application to the F.A.A. “We need to make sure that the data is both objective and accountable,” Ms. Slye said.

“The aviation association has always supported reasonable restrictions,” said Gene Oshrin, also an aviation association member and its representative to the town’s airport advisory committee. The association had encouraged the town to undertake the Part 161 process from the start, he said, but “unfortunately the town was encouraged to go down a different route.” Based on a memo from the F.A.A. to then-Congressman Tim Bishop, and on the advice of Peter Kirsch, the town’s former aviation attorney, the board enacted the now-voided airport restrictions without applying to the F.A.A.

Current town board policy is to decline F.A.A. grants, which require the town to agree to assurances, or agreements, with the F.A.A. regarding the operation of the airport. The assurances still in place will expire in 2021, and freedom from them may allow the town greater ability to institute its own regulations.

But in the decision that struck down East Hampton’s regulations, the federal court ruled that the federal law applies “to public airport operators regardless of their federal funding status,” Mr. O’Connor said. With the court ruling that regardless of F.A.A. grants the ANCA law still applies, Ms. Slye asked why the town would not once again begin accepting F.A.A. grants to pay for airport maintenance or other projects. The only reason for the town to continue to decline F.A.A. money would be if officials want to keep open the option of closing the airport once all the grant assurances expire, Mr. Oshrin suggested.

“I think that gives us leverage with the F.A.A.,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “The last thing the F.A.A. wants to see is KHTO [East Hampton Airport] closed. “Our constituents,” said Patricia Currie of the group Say No to KHTO, (its name a reference to the aviation designation) come from “far beyond the town,” and have a “conviction that the only way to gain peace and quiet and restore quality of life — it has to close.”

Representatives of Montauk United also attended this week’s meetings, stressing that consideration of airport regulations at East Hampton must take into account their effect on traffic at Montauk’s private airport. “I would never consider doing something only to displace the problem elsewhere in my constituency,” Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said.

Jerry Larsen, a Republican candidate for town board, and Manny Vilar, who is running on the same ticket for supervisor, raised an issue about the possible outcome of pending administrative proceedings before the F.A.A., which question the use of airport fund money for legal fees incurred to defend the 2015 restrictions. If the town is required to reimburse the airport budget for the money, or fines are levied, they suggested, the cost of undertaking a Part 161 study could fall on the taxpayers.

Airport-related costs are paid with revenue that comes in to the airport. “We are vehemently opposed,” Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said, to using non-airport tax dollars for airport costs.

Should the town decide to proceed, the first step would be to engage consultants to do an economic analysis. A complete application could be readied by November 2018, Mr. O’Connor said, and, if no further submissions were required, the town could have a decision from the F.A.A. by the middle of 2019.