Approximately 150 people filled the East Hampton Town Hall meeting room and an adjacent hallway last Thursday night for a hearing on whether the town should seek Federal Aviation Administration funds to erect fencing at East Hampton Airport, which would extend for 20 years the town’s contractual obligations, called grant assurances, with the federal agency as to how the airport is operated. The town board’s decision to do so is reported above.
With noise from incoming and departing aircraft, particularly helicopters, and widespread concern in East Hampton and surrounding communities, arguments have centered on what degree of control, particularly with regard to enacting curfews or banning certain aircraft, the town could gain by eschewing F.A.A. money.
The majority of the more than 50 speakers at the hearing, many of whom were pilots or involved in airport-related businesses, spoke in favor of accepting F.A.A. money, citing a need for maintenance and repairs to ensure safety.
A number of speakers asserted that those who oppose federal funding were doing so not just to gain local solutions to airport noise, but to close the airport down. None of those on the other side said closing the airport was part of their agenda.
Some of those who arrived at the start of the hearing found not only the meeting room but also the hallway packed. Unable to hear the goings on or to sign up to speak, a few left.
Town officials declined a request by a member of the Quiet Skies Coalition to adjourn the meeting to a larger venue. In a press release issued Monday by the group, Charles A. Ehren Jr. called the hearing a “sham.”
Several of those who spoke against seeking a new F.A.A. grant represented organizations, including the Quiet Skies Coalition, with some 300 members, the Village Preservation Society, with a membership numbering more than 400, and the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee.
The town plans to install and pay for a seasonal air traffic control facility at the airport, which is expected to lessen the noise impact on particular neighborhoods by redirecting aircraft. While some speakers said that would adequately address noise problems, others suggested a wait-and-see approach.
The air traffic controllers to be put in place, several speakers noted, along with an instrument landing system, would rereduce the number of missed approaches, avoiding the noise from multiple attempts to take off or land.
The stream of speakers expressing support for the town board’s proposal to submit an application for a new F.A.A. grant cited the economic value of the airport to East Hampton, in tourism as well as airport-related jobs, and expressed a need to keep the airport open and safe, and the fear that, as Bruno Schreck said, “the town could lose an important asset.”
Several were not only pilots but also owners of hangars at the airport, and, even though nonresidents, they do pay East Hampton taxes, they pointed out.
“Not to take the money . . . is to shut the airport down,” Nancy Neumann, a pilot, said. “The airport will not survive,” she added, calling that outcome “un-American.”
“F.A.A. support will help to facilitate” airport maintenance and noise abatement efforts, Wendy Reynolds said.
Peter Kirsch, an attorney specializing in airport matters whom the board hired as a consultant, told the crowd that “at this particular airport, the existence of grant assurances “does not significantly affect your ability to address noise issues.”
Federal airport guidelines remain in place regardless of whether the town has to abide by F.A.A. grant assurances, he said. In either case, a legal procedure must be followed in order for the town to gain the ability to make certain decisions about airport use. The question is how successful the town could be if it did not accept federal money.
“What I want to advise you is there’s a great deal of legal uncertainty,” Mr. Kirsch said to the board during a work session this week.
David Gruber, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the town over whether noise had been sufficiently examined before the town board adopted an airport master plan, and Jeffrey Bragman, his attorney, questioned Mr. Kirsch’s analysis.
A Supreme Court decision upheld New York City’s right to impose restrictions on a heliport that was free of F.A.A. obligations, Mr. Gruber said, including a curfew, limits on the number of takeoffs and landings, and a ban on certain aircraft deemed too noisy.
Mr. Gruber said an F.A.A. spokesman had told Representative Tim Bishop’s office that, with grant assurances in effect, the F.A.A. wouldn’t allow that to happen. “Because,” he said, “by the way the F.A.A. counts noise, there is no noise in East Hampton.” Rather than acknowledge the cumulative impact of aircraft noise, the F.A.A. uses “single event” methodology to assess the impact of noise, he said.
Kathleen Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition, which sought and obtained a pledge from the Democratic candidates for town board in last month’s election to hold off on taking new F.A.A. money until the effect of the traffic control facility could be gauged, recommended the town conduct a detailed study and cost-benefit analysis of alternatives. Two of those candidates, Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, will take office in January, forming a minority under Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who narrowly won his bid for re-election, and a Republican majority.
“I would ask you to think very hard about the numbers of people in this town that are saying please listen to our concerns,” Ms. Cunningham said. “It’s so hard to live near this airport.”
“They’re driving me absolutely nuts,” Patricia Currie of Noyac said of planes flying over her neighborhood.
Mary Busch, a Village Preservation Society trustee, said she feared that extending the F.A.A. grant assurances would “require that the airport be open all day, every day, all year long, for another 20 years.”
“Being beholden to the F.A.A. for 20 more years is a serious step that requires serious study,” she said, quoting a letter from her group to the board. “It may be that F.A.A. funding is the only way for East Hampton to have a viable airport. However, rushing to judgment for the sake of a politically connected lobby could be a regrettable step with long-reaching adverse consequences to the community at large.”
However, in a letter read into the record by his daughter, Margie Saurenman, Tom Lavinio, a co-founder of the East Hampton Aviation Association, said, “The airport cannot exist without F.A.A. funds. Eddie Saureman said, “The F.A.A. is not the big bad bogeyman. They’re actually here to help, contrary to what some people believe.” But, he warned, “Don’t be adversarial with the F.A.A. You will not win.”
“This is an issue about quality of life, and the issue is, what is the balance between benefits to quality of life for some people, and the damage to quality of life for others,” said Jim Matthews of the Northwest Alliance, which has raised concerns about the environmental effects of aircraft emissions as well as noise.
Opponents of taking F.A.A. funding, Rod Davidson charged, are trying “to close the airport by creating real safety issues,” due to lack of maintenance, that would lead to a closure.
“I got drawn into this issue because I couldn’t take the noise over my home anymore,” Robert Wolfram of Sag Harbor said. “I’ve yet to meet anybody who wants to close the airport.” The control tower will not be enough to solve the problem, he said. “Just distributing the noise over a 360-degree circle is only going to piss off a lot more people than the ones that are currently getting annoyed by the flights.”
A $1.5 million surplus in the airport fund is “not nearly enough to fund essential capital projects,” Jim Brundige, the airport manager, said. On Tuesday, Mr. Kirsch went further, saying that engineers had estimated that the town would need $2 million to $3 million annually for the next five years just for essential airport maintenance.
“How important is tight local control in solving the problems associated with the airport?” Jordy Mark asked. “I think there are questions that need to be answered. It’s not about what side you’re on; it’s something that everyone should want to know.”
“How big are the jets going to be in five years?” asked Bill Montanari, who said he lives about a mile from the end of an airport runway. Unlike the small Cessnas that he saw flying over his property when he was building his house, the large 20-seater luxury jets now are “so low that I can see the ice in the drinks,” he said. “I’m worried that the jets are going to be too big if we take the F.A.A. money.”
“I think there’s a middle ground,” said Steve Beckerman, a New Jersey and Amagansett resident who flew in to East Hampton to attend the meeting. He, and others, noted that there is agreement among pilots and other residents about the need to address airport noise. “Problems often present opportunities,” he said. “I recommend that the board work with the F.A.A., work with this community, and create a win-win for everyone.”