The East Hampton Airport took center stage in the coming town election as the Democratic candidates for town board pledged this week not to take Federal Aviation Administration grants for airport projects for at least the next two years — a key element in the debate over how to gain more local control over use of the airport in order to ease the impact of aircraft noise on residents.
The candidates, Zachary Cohen, who is running for supervisor, and Peter Van Scoyoc and Sylvia Overby, said they would accept no federal money, which comes along with “grant assurances” — a 20-year obligation on the part of the town to operate the airport under particular F.A.A. guidelines — while conducting a study of the airport. They would wait for the expiration of several of the grant assurances in 2014 in order to determine what impact that could have on East Hampton’s ability to impose restrictions such as curfews.
The recent F.A.A. approval of the town’s airport layout plan allows submission of new applications for agency grants, and Republican Councilman Dominick Stanzione has suggested that the town board do so immediately to subsidize a deer fence project. The approval also paves the way for the town to install a seasonal control facility at the airport, allowing for the control of altitude and flight paths within a five-mile radius. Mr. Stanzione has said that the tower, along with the F.A.A.’s expected approval of a new flight path along the southern coast of Long Island, which would redistribute air traffic, will reduce noise problems here.
The question of accepting federal money is hotly debated, with airport noise control advocates, including a new group called the Quiet Skies Coalition, insisting that getting out from under the grant assurances is key, while others, including the East Hampton Aviation Association, believe that the town should take the federal dollars, minimizing taxes on residents, while at the same time they question how much control the town would actually gain.
In a release this week, the Quiet Skies Coalition called for voters to base their ballot decisions on the stands candidates take on the issue.
A position paper distributed by the Democrats cites “increasing tensions between the users of the airport and the people who live under the flight paths” and says that a number of people “live with a disturbing amount of noise.”
“While the airport provides benefits to a few residents, hundreds, if not thousands, of other residents experience a lower quality of life and diminished property values from its operation. The town must keep open the option of regaining local control after 2014 unless there is proof that it is possible to satisfactorily control noise under the current grant assurances,” it says.
The candidates propose studying the effect of the seasonal control tower for two seasons after its installation, along with safety, noise, and flight paths in the off-season, doing a full financial analysis to examine how the airport can be self-sustaining without taxpayer support, and factoring in future variables such as increased helicopter traffic or new aircraft technology.
“No one has done a good financial analysis of the airport’s long-term operating costs, including debt service, if the town does not take F.A.A. money. We will do such an analysis in the first nine months of our term,” the Democratic candidates said in their statement.
While the airport is being studied, the Democratic candidates said it should receive no taxpayer funding. Fees paid by airport users and an existing $1.5 million surplus can pay for the control tower and small projects, such as the deer fence, they propose, while a larger project, the repair of runway 4-22, should be put on hold.
Mr. Stanzione, the town board’s airport liaison, denounced the Democrats’ statement this week, saying it was based on “untruths.”
He has been consulting with Peter Kirsch, an aviation attorney, and said he is convinced that the town would not gain anything by refusing F.A.A. grants. He supplied a fact sheet prepared by Mr. Kirsch describing what would be required should the town seek F.A.A. permission to restrict use of the airport, which the attorney called “extensive, time-consuming, and costly,” taking several years and potentially costing millions of dollars.
However, according to Kathleen Cunningham, a member of the Quiet Skies Coalition steering committee who served as chairwoman of the town’s now-disbanded airport noise abatement advisory committee, much of the required data collection and environmental review have already been done as part of the master plan process.
In his memo, Mr. Kirsch writes that when all of the grant assurances East Hampton is bound by expire in 2021, “the town would gain only slightly greater control over the airport than it has today,” as all public airports are subject to federal, state, and constitutional laws. Airport owners can restrict access to an airport only if they can meet “a fairly high threshold” demonstrating that the actions are reasonable and “necessary to achieve legitimate local needs,” he said.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said Tuesday that the town board had met with Mr. Kirsch in an executive session several weeks ago and that she supports having the consultant discuss the funding issue at a public work session of the board.
She said she needed more information in order to decide about taking new F.A.A. grants. However, she said she believed Mr. Kirsch had told the board that accepting federal money for the deer fence would not extend the town’s obligation to abide by F.A.A. grant assurances beyond their current expiration date.
“The question of control is the key,” Ms. Quigley said. “I want to make sure that the helicopters are controlled.”
Both she and Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, who with Mr. Stanzione form the board’s Republican majority, said that, depending on the implications, they would like to see town taxpayers benefit from federal dollars.
“The economy is severely stressful on all our residents,” Mr. Wilkinson said Tuesday. “They are already being taxed when they fly, for F.A.A. funding of such airports. I don’t believe in double taxation.”
But the supervisor said there are no plans at present to apply for new F.A.A. grants to pay for airport deer fences. “I don’t see that happening,” he said.
“I do think that we have an asset in that airport,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “It’s part of our infrastructure, not only in case of emergency. But you have to have a balance.”
“At the same time I don’t believe that the airport should be expanded,” he said. “I believe it should be maintained as it is.”
He said he believes that the board should “really do a thorough vetting [to] look and see if there’s real cause and effect” regarding local airport control and what F.A.A. money obligates the town to do. Meanwhile, Mr. Wilkinson said, “I think we’re working toward a quieter airport, and a safer airport.” He indicated the F.A.A.’s recent approval of the airport layout plan and the potential for the seasonal control facility as well as the possibility of the more southern helicopter route.
In a letter to The Star this week, members of a helicopter committee formed by the Northwest Alliance, a group concerned with issues related to the Northwest area of East Hampton, asked the town board to reject further Federal Aviation Administration money. They said that, while pleased with the recent developments, “neither of these steps can address what we see as the primary problem: excessive airport traffic and the resulting noise pollution.”
“With relief from grant assurances we will be entitled to establish and enforce a variety of policies that will reduce noise,” they wrote.
In another letter to the editor submitted this week, Frank Dalene, the vice chairman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, took issue with recent newspaper ads placed by the East Hampton Aviation Association saying that F.A.A. cooperation and funding is “essential” and that “now we can have a quieter and safer airport with local control.”
He cited questions raised by Joseph Fischetti of Southold, a member of a regional airport noise committee, about the ultimate impact of the southern flight route, as its use would require aircraft to have specialized equipment. And questions remain about routing planes through Kennedy Airport airspace.
In a release, the Quiet Skies Coalition said that the group is asking each town board candidate on the November ballot to sign a pledge not to take further F.A.A. funding for the airport.
In an informational flier also distributed this week, the coalition cites several effects of what is described as an “at-times-deafening aerial assault” from helicopters and airplanes, including “spoiling the very act of being outdoors for thousands of people on a daily basis,” “aggravating natural habitats and the wild creatures therein,” and “significantly damaging our property values and our chosen way of life.”
Concerns over the airport, including not only noise but also the environmental impacts of aviation fuel emissions and underground jet fuel tanks, “force voters to support candidates for town board according to their position on exercising local control of our airport,” Barry Raebeck, the group’s chairman, said in the release.