With plenty of data already collected on noise from aircraft using East Hampton Airport, a consultant said Tuesday that East Hampton Town is well positioned to begin a process that could lead within 18 months to two years to enacting restrictions on airport use by helicopters or noisy jets — for a $1.5 million to $2 million price tag.
Ted Baldwin, a senior vice president with the environmental consulting firm Harris, Miller, Miller, and Hanson, told the East Hampton Town Board that pursuing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for rules designed to decrease noise through a process called a Part 161 study could bring a positive outcome, even if it falls short of achieving a full go-ahead from the F.A.A. Noise has been a long-lived subject of discussion and complaint, particularly as more weekends are bookended by a stream of helicopters landing and taking off.
The procedure itself, which entails specifically defining the noise problem before proposing a tailored fix, could lead to a negotiated agreement with user groups, such as the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, through which the town could achieve its goals, Mr. Baldwin said.
East Hampton, with its geography, demographics, and proximity to the metropolitan area — far enough that visitors seek a way to bypass driving, but too close, perhaps, for travel by planes other than helicopters — is unique among municipal airports across the country, Jim Brundige, the airport manager, told the board. “There are only a handful of airports that have a helicopter problem,” he said. “We’re probably the poster child for that.”
Mr. Baldwin and Peter Kirsch, an aviation attorney who has been working with a team of consultants for the town, asked town board members to decide how to proceed on the Part 161 study and other matters.
“We have the data sources we need; we’ve been collecting the data long enough that it’s useful,” Mr. Baldwin said. The next step would be to integrate the data from various sources, he said. He estimated that would cost the town $500,000.
“What’s the degree of success on a $2 million investment?” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson asked.
The more narrowly the town defines its noise problem and targets it with proposed regulations, the better the chance of earning the F.A.A.’s okay, Mr. Kirsch said.
The potential for costly litigation challenging the town’s actions would also decrease, he said. Defending a lawsuit “will be expensive,” the attorney said.
Using an extreme example, he said if town officials decide to pursue something like closing the airport altogether on weekends, the process of making a case for that decision would be costly, and success unlikely.
With airport noise long an issue, Mr. Baldwin described how the consultants have been involved with the town since 2003 or ’04. Noise data collection systems have been installed, and aircraft operators have been asked to adhere to a series of voluntary regulations. “We’re really far along,” he said.
Councilwoman Theresa Quigley said, initially, that she would support having Mr. Baldwin work on the next step. “Unless we find that $500,000 the last nine years have been for naught,” she said. “Because if we want to get some control over the airport, this is the way we can get it, unless we stop accepting F.A.A. money.”
Whether the town should seek to free itself from some agreements with the F.A.A. on how the airport is run by eschewing further federal airport grants has long been debated. Some agreements, or “grant assurances,” are soon to expire, but the town board voted to proceed with a new grant request for an airport perimeter fence, which would extend the agreement. The F.A.A. has requested the board pass a resolution stating its resolve to proceed with that project before processing the application.
Either way, Mr. Kirsch has told the board, some federal airport rules would be maintained, requiring the town to justify its actions should use restrictions be proposed. How much easier that might be than following the Part 161 procedure has been debated.
Ms. Quigley said she does not think spurning F.A.A. money is a viable option. “That is based on my assumption that this process will give us relief on the noise,” she said. “If that isn’t the case, then I would reassess my statement on F.A.A. funds.”
Later in the meeting, however, Ms. Quigley reversed herself. “I don’t want to spend any money,” she said, upon learning that the town does not have control over routes used by aircraft flying into and out of the airport.
The board was discussing community complaints generated when the suggested route was changed last summer following a meeting among Mr. Brundige, Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the airport’s seasonal control tower operators, and pilots. Ms. Quigley and Mr. Wilkinson have continually criticized Mr. Stanzione for not involving the entire board in the decision making.
The town has liability for accidents, said Ms. Quigley, a lawyer, and so elected officials should make the route decisions.
At the meeting Tuesday, Mr. Brundige described the meeting and resultant agreement as routine, and among his duties as airport manager.
“Jim, Jim, Jim, it’s admirable of you to fall on your sword,” Mr. Wilkinson told him. Nonetheless, he said, the whole town board should be making decisions about aircraft routing. Mr. Stanzione said that “in retrospect, I should have involved the board.”
But both Mr. Kirsch and Jeff Smith, the Eastern Region Helicopter Council chairman, explained how the town, as airport proprietor, is responsible for operations on the ground, but has no jurisdiction over airspace, nor liability for what happens there.
“You have to understand, the airspace is owned by the F.A.A.,” Mr. Smith said. Pilots answer to that agency, but may follow suggestions from the airport operator if possible while complying with F.A.A. requirements. “It’s a voluntary agreement,” he said.
“You can take ownership, or not take ownership,” he told the board. But, he added, echoing the opinion of Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, who warned of the danger of politicizing decisions over flight routes, “it’s very difficult for an elected body to jump in and decide whose house we’re going to fly over, and whose house we’re not going to fly over.”
In that case, Ms. Quigley said, repeating a suggestion both she and the supervisor have already made, the town should “get rid of the asset. If indeed this has nothing to do with us, then quite frankly I have nothing to do with it.”