Airport Debate About to Land, Or Is It?

All sides arming for fight next Thursday
The East Hampton Town Board’s decision about whether to take a federal grant for security and deer fencing around the airport may have repercussions for future noise abatement efforts there. Morgan McGivern

    A hearing next Thursday night on funding for the construction of a fence around East Hampton Airport — to prevent collisions with deer and to increase security — is not simply about the project but about how opposing groups would like the airport to be operated and airport noise addressed.
    In recent years, complaints about aircraft traffic to and from East Hampton, particularly helicopters, have escalated, both locally and across Long Island, with concerns raised about disruptions to residents and the impacts of noise and emissions from planes on the environment.
    The issue has drawn regional attention, with efforts made by government officials, including Representative Tim Bishop, to move flight paths to routes that would have the least negative impact. Efforts have been complicated by federal transportation and aviation regulations, which provide limited authority to local municipalities.
    Dominick Stanzione, a Republican East Hampton Town Councilman, has proposed obtaining a Federal Aviation Administration grant for the fencing. Doing so would extend, for a new 20-year period, the town’s obligation to abide by a particular set of F.A.A. rules.
    Some argue that accepting the grant would foreclose the possibility of gaining local control over the airport through procedures available only to airport operators that are free of contractual agreements with the F.A.A., called grant assurances. Others, like Mr. Stanzione, assert that freedom from grant assurances is unnecessary, and that seeking autonomy from the F.A.A. is a complicated and costly process that would result in minimal, if any, gains.
    No definitive estimates on the cost of the fencing have been prepared. However, Mr. Stanzione, the councilman serving as the liaison on the town board’s committee on airport matters, said Monday the design of the project could cost $100,000 and the fencing itself, around the perimeter of the 600-acre site, could cost about $400,000. A separate airport fund in the town budget contains a surplus in excess of that amount, and some have suggested the surplus be used to pay for the work.
    Councilman Stanzione said that he was “using the vehicle of the deer fence to settle the issue . . . to accept F.A.A. funds for the airport. I can’t have a resolution generically accepting F.A.A. funds,” he said. “This is a vehicle for me to express a policy position . . . to  provide an opportunity for the board to have a hearing, in a public forum, on the premise of accepting F.A.A. funding. . . .”
    “I believe it is in the best interests of the town, because it’s the most fiscally responsible,” Mr. Stanzione said. The move, he said, and subsequent agreement to accept F.A.A. management rules, would be balanced by adopting a comprehensive noise-abatement program, the elements of which he has been working on for several months and expects to release in the coming week. He called the program a “progressive list” of more than 40 procedures, from the cheapest and easiest to implement to the more complicated.
    But those seeking an effective remedy for airport noise, such as members of the newly formed Quiet Skies Coalition, say that wresting local control of the airport from the F.A.A. is key. They have been waiting for 2014 when, they say, the town will have an opportunity to enact stricter regulations.
    The expiration at that time of four grant assurances, among the 39 in place, would give the town leeway, they say, to impose a ban on noisy helicopters, establish flight curfews, limit weekend airport use, and set other noise-reduction goals.
    (Though the majority of the town’s contractual obligations to the F.A.A. remain in place until 2021, the four will expire sooner, pursuant to a settlement with the F.A.A. of a lawsuit brought several years ago by a local group, the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, and David Gruber, an East Hampton resident.)
    “The law is clear,” the Quiet Skies Coalition asserts in an ad in this week’s Star.
    Recent presentations by aviation attorneys, one arranged by the town board and another by the Quiet Skies Coalition, have outlined the underpinnings of the procedures an airport owner must follow to gain the ability to enact certain restrictions.
    Peter Kirsch, an attorney and consultant for the town board, who has represented two airport owners in such undertakings — one successful and one failed — and Sheila Jones, an attorney who spoke at a forum last month at the coalition’s request, agreed on the legal parameters. But they expressed different perspectives on whether the effort would be worth it or could bear fruit. Those who consider helicopter noise intolerable want the town to try anything it can.
    A campaign to implore East Hamptoners to attend the hearing next week is taking shape, with ads placed in newspapers by the Quiet Skies Coalition and the East Hampton Aviation Association, which supports taking F.A.A. funding.
    The aviation association alleges that those opposed to taking federal money are not only interested in local control but in closing the airport.
    Others have set up a Facebook page inviting residents to the “urgent” hearing. “Don’t let the current town board irrevocably change the peace and quiet of our community,” Susan McGraw Keber wrote on that page. 
    The town has accepted more than $103 million in F.A.A. grants for the airport since 1983, Mr. Stanzione said this week. The money paid for projects such as runway repair and building improvements — money that the town would have had to borrow if it hadn’t gotten federal funding, he said.
    Mr. Stanzione said he does not believe the majority of taxpayers favor turning down F.A.A. money and pursuing local control through a process with an unsure outcome.
    “If that were true, I would not advance the argument,” he said. The councilman said he is hoping that, during work session discussions following next week’s hearing, the town board will reach a bipartisan consensus to apply for the grant.
    It is unclear, however, whether such an application could be prepared, submitted, and reviewed by the F.A.A., before January, when, depending on the outcome of the town supervisor election — with ballots still being reviewed by the Board of Elections at press time — the town board majority could change.
    The two Democratic board members-elect, Peter Van Scoyoc and Sylvia Overby, have vowed to hold off on accepting F.A.A. money until its full impact, and noise control options, could be thoroughly reviewed. The potential Democratic supervisor, Zachary Cohen, would do the same.
    Mr. Stanzione said that regardless of the outcome he was pleased that the debate was on the table. “For the first time, we have had a real, honest public discussion on issues related to the airport.”