Helo Route Is Upheld

Court says F.A.A. can mandate north shore path

    The Helicopter Association International, which had challenged a Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring helicopter pilots to use a route off Long Island’s north shore when flying between New York City and the East End, lost a bid before the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., last week.

    U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Roberts said that the F.A.A. acted within its authority when it mandated use of a route one mile from shore, over Long Island Sound, in response to complaints about helicopter noise from residents, municipalities, and citizens’ groups.

    The judge ruled that the F.A.A. had properly found that “residents along the north shore of Long Island emphatically agreed that helicopter overflights during the summer months are unbearable and negatively impact their quality of life,” and that the F.A.A. has the power to enact regulations to “control and abate aircraft noise.”

    The mandated route was the result of a lengthy effort by those in noise-affected communities and regional officials including New York State Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop.

    Before the mandate, helicopter pilots often took a preferred route overland, which was faster and posed fewer weather delays.

    In 2010, in response to the proposed mandated northern route the East End Helicopter Noise Stakeholders Group sent a letter to the F.A.A. recommending the agency mandate both a northern and southern helicopter route, in order to “equitably distribute the volume of helicopter traffic.”

    A follow-up letter sent to the F.A.A. last October and signed by 19 elected regional, town, and village officials said that “helicopter noise remains a major, unresolved ‘quality of life’ issue for our region” and that the situation “remains unsatisfactory.” It called for the agency to act immediately to designate an Atlantic helicopter route.

    A response from the F.A.A. to Congressman Tim Bishop in February said that “the FAA lacks sufficient data to suggest that imposing a mandatory south shore route is justifiable.” It said the agency will be assessing the effectiveness of the northern route during the two years it will be in effect, and would consider whether to extend the rule requiring helicopters to fly that route. “We also will consider whether and, if so, what additional measures may be appropriate to mitigate noise over Long Island,” the F.A.A. told the congressman’s office.

    In a statement issued early this week, Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the East Hampton Town Board’s liaison on airport matters, said that the recent appeals court decision against the Helicopter Association International “is very good news for the Town of East Hampton’s efforts to regulate helicopter noise at the East Hampton Airport.”

    The court decision, he said, “upheld and strengthened the powers of the F.A.A. . . . to regulate and mitigate helicopter noise.”

    While local advocates for airport noise abatement have long argued that East Hampton must cease accepting F.A.A. money for its airport in order to gain the ability to enact regulations to reduce noise, such as mandatory flight curfews, Mr. Stanzione supports continued acceptance of federal grants for the airport, while pursuing the F.A.A.’s permission for noise-control regulations.

    Those on either side have argued about the significance of accepting F.A.A. grants, which obligate the town to a set of agreements, or “grant assurances,” regarding airport operations, and how they might impact the town’s ability to successfully gain more local control of the airport.

    On the advice of an aviation attorney consultant, the town board voted to begin the process of data collection on airport noise for a possible future application to the F.A.A.

    Mr. Stanzione said that, in his view, the court decision verifies that “the best chance for successfully regulating helicopters at the East Hampton Airport . . . is to continue working with the F.A.A. cooperatively” to enact noise control measures such as “mandatory curfews and access limitations,” and to continue pressing the F.A.A. to establish a second mandatory east-west helicopter route along Long Island’s Atlantic shore.

    “I believe that by working with the F.A.A. now, when the town’s ongoing noise studies are properly completed and submitted to the F.A.A., East Hampton’s noise regulations, if reasonable, are more likely to be upheld by the F.A.A.,” he said in a press release. “Moreover, an Atlantic route is, I believe, more likely to be approved by the F.A.A. as an addition to the existing Long Island northern route. A two-route F.A.A. system has been recommended by the town for several years.”

    “It seems now crystal clear,” he wrote. “Rejecting F.A.A. funds and having the town ‘go it alone’ and battling the helicopter industry by ourselves is neither a prudent or necessary course of action.”

    The court decision, he said, “vindicates and validates” the town’s course of action, “that is, to follow the procedures set forth by the F.A.A. to factually substantiate the disruptive effect of excessive helicopter noise on East Hampton residents and on residents of the entire East End. This decision gives great impetus to the probability of success of this town board’s efforts to effectively manage helicopter noise and traffic.”

    Jeffrey Bragman, an attorney representing plaintiffs who are challenging the town’s adoption of an updated airport master plan and layout plan, disagreed. Councilman Stanzione, he said, “represents aviation interests.”

    “Moving routes is merely shuffling noise around in the sky. It does nothing to reduce noise. When you’re under F.A.A. control, their policy — and it’s been established in case law — is unlimited airport access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said.

    “This means that traffic is going to escalate. So local control without F.A.A. funding is the only way to impose airport traffic restrictions,” such as curfews, ending weekend flights, or restricting certain aircraft, he said. “That’s the only way to actually reduce the amount of traffic,” and reduce noise, Mr. Bragman said.