The three-person Republican majority on the town board split on Tuesday when Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said they would reconsider accepting new grants for East Hampton Airport from the Federal Aviation Administration.
At the same meeting, Councilman Dominick Stanzione tried, and failed, to gain board approval to apply for three more grants.
Ms. Quigley had made her opinion known last week, following the receipt of a memo from the federal agency detailing, for the first time, its position regarding the potential for the town to enact its own restrictions on the use of the airport after the expiration of existing contractual obligations between the town and the agency in 2014.
“I’d like to have clarification about what we can and can’t do,” Mr. Wilkinson said at Tuesday’s board work session. He said he would seek additional counsel from Peter Kirsch, an aviation attorney who had previously made a presentation to the board about the applicable statutes.
Councilman Stanzione sought approval in vain to submit additional grant applications to the F.A.A., for the repair of runway 4-22, construction of a fence around the airport’s perimeter, and an airport capital improvement plan.
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc and Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, the Democratic board minority, had pledged during their election campaigns last fall to hold the line on new F.A.A. grants, at least until after 2014, when the town’s potential for local control could be assessed.
Mr. Stanzione, who as the board’s liaison to the airport has advocated accepting F.A.A. money, and has been working with Mr. Kirsch to design a noise-abatement program that could be put in place even under new grant assurances, did get the board’s approval on contracts with several companies that will help the town gather data that could be used in seeking the F.A.A.’s okay for new airport rules.
At last Thursday’s meeting, the board approved an agreement with Plane Noise, which will deal with noise by monitoring landings 24 hours a day and compiling data, matching complaints with particular aircraft, for $15,000 a year; with AirScene, a company that has been providing a flight tracking system used for similar purposes, for $98,697 a year, and with Vector Airport Solutions, which will record landings and bill aircraft landing at the airport, for an annual fee of $98,975, over a four-year contract, after the town buys needed equipment for $61,015.
Following the designation by the F.A.A. of controlled airspace around East Hampton Airport, the town is also poised to have an air traffic control tower in place for the summer season. Another resolution approved last Thursday was to hire Robinson Aviation to staff and operate the control tower, for $342,600 a year.
Residents looking for relief from aircraft noise, particularly helicopters, including members of the Quiet Skies Coalition, believe the only way to effectively control noise is to limit access to the airport, at certain times of the day, for instance. Gaining F.A.A. permission to do so would be unlikely, they have said, if the town continues to follow the terms of “grant assurances,” which are set in place for 20-year periods when the town takes money from the agency.
Last Thursday and again on Tuesday they urged the town board to rescind a December resolution to submit a new grant application to the agency for the design of a perimeter fence, thus creating a new set of 20-year obligations.
“Give yourself time to reconsider the new information that’s been brought forward,” Kathy Cunningham, the chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said to the board last Thursday. “All previous notions of what the F.A.A. would do, which were posited by [aviation] attorneys, have been trumped” by the F.A.A.’s direct responses to the group’s questions, she said.
A federal law that allows airport proprietors to enact only “reasonable, nonarbitrary, and nondiscriminatory” rules will still apply whether there are grant assurances in effect or not, but the key difference after 2014, when the F.A.A. can no longer enforce several of the agreements, Charles Ehren, another Quiet Skies Coalition member, told the board, is that the agency has now said that it would also release the town from the provisions of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act.
That legislation spells out the procedure through which any airport owner — even those beholden to grant assurances — may seek to gain approval for local restrictions. “Under that statute you can’t impose regulations without going to the F.A.A.,” Mr. Ehren said.
But, Mr. Ehren said, since the act went into effect in 1990, only one airport, in Naples, Fla., has been successful in gaining F.A.A. approval for local control under those rules. However, he said, in litigation involving New York City’s heliport, for which F.A.A. funds had never been accepted, the F.A.A. did not intervene, and a court found that the city’s rules regarding use of the heliport met the federal “reasonable” standard, and allowed them to stand.
A number of pilots and aviation business owners also attended last Thursday’s board meeting. They have claimed that the airport would eventually be closed unless the town takes F.A.A. money to fund its upkeep and repair. That, they have said, is the ultimate goal of the noise control group.
“We are not trying to close the airport. That is not our goal; it never has been,” Ms. Cunningham said. The fence is not the problem, she said. “I have pledges in the thousands of dollars to privately fund the deer fence, if that’s what it will take to withdraw the application,” she said.
Bruno Schreck, a pilot, said F.A.A. grant money was “money that we’ve already paid for” in transportation-related fees, and that “to decide instead that local taxpayers should pay” for the airport is “double taxation.”
Margie Saurenman, the vice president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, urged the board on Tuesday, to have more public discussion about the issue. “The F.A.A. answers and questions have been more than clarified,” she said. “We need to put this to public debate so we can get the airport funded properly and maintained properly.”