Packed Hearing on Airport Noise

‘Relief from torture’? ‘A death sentence’? The town board will decide
Jonathan Sabin, standing, and his father, Andrew Sabin, seated to his left, said that the town board’s proposed East Hampton Airport regulations are too restrictive. Morgan McGivern

Four local laws designed to curtail noise from the ever-increasing number of aircraft landing at and taking off from East Hampton Airport were hashed out last Thursday night during a crowded hearing at LTV Studios in Wainscott.

Many in the audience had been on hand last summer at an East Hampton Town Board meeting discussing the negative effects of the noise, largely from helicopters. The board has worked with consultants since then to compile data on the problem and develop airport access policies that not only comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements but would be defensible against legal challenges from the aviation industry.

Airport use restrictions proposed for the coming season and beyond would establish a year-round overnight flight curfew, would ban helicopters from the airport from noon on Thursday to noon on Monday from May 1 to Sept. 30, and would subject aircraft defined as “noisy” to a once-a-week round-trip limit during the season, and an extended curfew.

With groundbreaking policies on the table that could drastically change the outlook for both aircraft operators and airport businesses as well as those affected by the noise from above, both sides pulled out all the stops. Supporters of the regulations came from across the East End, airport businesses brought their employees, pilots prepared presentations, and the aviation industry sent regional representatives.

Those supporting the proposed laws protested the impact of the limited number of airport users on a much larger segment of the community. Those against them said reducing air traffic would have a widespread and devastating economic impact that could result in closure of the airport, and questioned the data on which the restrictions are based. The proposal, they said, is overreaching and would become mired in costly litigation.

Just over 40 people expressed support for the laws. Of the 26 people who spoke in opposition, 19 identified themselves as pilots or plane owners, aviation industry representatives, owners of airport-based businesses, or employees of those businesses.

All 10 of the elected officials in attendance, representing municipalities from across the East End, thanked their East Hampton counterparts and urged them to, as Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said, “stay the course.”

“Don’t be bullied by anyone,” said County Legislator Al Krupski, who represents the First Legislative District, “otherwise known as the flight path,” he said.

Southampton officials, however, expressed concern about the possible diversion of air traffic to their town’s two landing sites, a helipad in Southampton Village and Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. Several speakers from Montauk, where there is a private airport strip, expressed the same concern, and urged the board to finish and assess a “diversion study” purporting to show what air traffic patterns would look like under the new laws.

Opponents said reducing air traffic would have a devastating financial effect, not only on the airport itself — the decline in revenue from fewer flights would result in its closure, many said — but on the entire community. People who have been arriving here by air will vacate the area if they cannot continue to do so, they predicted, taking their spending money with them, and businesses that rely on airport traffic will take an economic hit.

Cindy Herbst, an owner of Sound Aircraft, told the board, as she has throughout discussions of airport regulation, that a reduction in flights would be a serious blow to her business. “There is no way to survive a trial run of these restrictions,” said Maureen Quigley, one of her longtime employees.

Many supporting the rules said that businesses, and the community, would adjust and survive, and cited a negative financial effect on the value of property situated under the flight path.

“If the only reason they care about East Hampton is because they can get there by helicopter, then let them go,” Susan McGraw Keber said.

“People have been coming here since the horse and buggy . . . people are not going to stop coming here just because they can’t come by helicopter,” Patricia Currie said. If some leave, others will replace them, she said. “Please pass the restrictions; we will survive.”

Andrew Sabin, whose uses the airport in his business, called the proposed rules “unreasonable,” and said that costly litigation would ensue.

“We do support reasonable restrictions at the airport,” said Jonathan Sabin, his son — a nighttime curfew, for example, but not a weekend helicopter ban. But, he said, “declaring that most users of the airport are of no social value is not a good starting point for negotiations. It’s dangerous to enrage that demographic.”

“We are a resort community dependent on seasonal traffic, and that cannot be ignored,” said Rod Davidson, a member of a town airport committee and a Sound Aircraft employee. He declared the proposed regulations a “death sentence” to the economy that would do “irreparable damage to our community and our livelihood.”

Peter Wolf, an airport planning committee member and chairman of the East Hampton Village Preservation Society’s airport noise committee, called predictions of economic disaster “nonsense.” Businesses will work around it, he said, likening the institution of new regulations to the onset of zoning laws in the 1950s, which also caused protest and dire predictions but was, he said, in the “general public interest.”

Margaret Turner, executive director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, acknowledged the need for noise relief but expressed concern about the rules’ effect on businesses, calling them “too extreme and onerous.” To impose them without fully understanding their impact was “dangerous,” she said. She and others said acting without definitive findings from a committee charged with assessing the financial effects was unwise.

Committee members, who represented both the aviation and the noise-affected communities, could not reach a consensus on what to say about the result of their economic modeling, and issued no report at all.

“How can the board move forward with these oppressive restrictions while lacking the financial forecast?” asked Evan Catarelli, also a Sound Aircraft employee.

Other regulation opponents questioned the data on noise and aircraft traffic used to underpin the proposed rules.

Gene Oshrin, a member of the East Hampton Aviation Association and of the town’s airport committees, submitted an analysis by the engineering firm Greenman-Pedersen of the noise study prepared by consultants for the town, which, he said, addressed “the shortcomings and lack of validity of the town’s noise study.”

In comments at the hearing and at a town board meeting on Tuesday, Bruno Schreck, another pilot, said that the way the town’s consultants presented the airport user and complaint data “kind of distorts the reality,” and submitted his own graphs and charts about the noise impact.

When Irving Paler, a Wainscott pilot, began reading aloud the names of people who had called the airport noise hotline to complain — public information that he had obtained, along with the number of calls they had made — some in the audience protested. “These are all made-up calls,” Mr. Paler charged.

Some complaint-line callers proudly took ownership, however, calling out “That’s me,” when he named them, and joking about whether they had made the upper echelon of most-frequent callers.

“It is not about data, it is about airport operations assaulting everyone else,” said Barry Raebeck of the Quiet Skies Coalition. Aircraft emissions, he said, are a “huge environmental toxin in our midst.”

“The profiteers and carpeteers from New Jersey have pulled out all the stops,” Frank Dalene said, with “fear-mongering and absurd Doomsday scenarios.”

“This was predictable,” he said, as no business wants to have to cut back on profitable operations. However, he said, all types of businesses have to deal with regulations that protect the community, and so should aviation.

“Every polluting business has always wanted the same thing — to continue to pollute while making as much money as possible,” said Patricia Wadzinski of Amagansett.

“They impose on us uninvited to exploit the region for monetary gain,” Gene Polito said. With new helicopter ride-sharing services, said Barry Holden, the number of flights will continue to increase. The opponents of regulation, he said, “are in it only for their own business interests . . . . We’re in it to protect the most beautiful place on earth.”

The proposed regulations “embody a time-honored tradition of policy for the greater good, of bringing industry up to community standards,” Kathy Cunningham a co-chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said, adding, however, that she was speaking as a private citizen. “We’re not asking people not to come here,” she said. “We’re just asking them to come quietly.”

“Please move ahead with this; I prefer to spend the bulk of my summer in my garden, not in my basement,” said Tom MacNiven of East Hampton.

“This is the first board in 30 years that has taken this problem seriously and put meaningful proposals on the table,” said Pat Trunzo, thanking the board members. A former town councilman, he has long been involved in airport matters in that capacity and as a member of the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion.

“This is not merely anti-noise legislation; this is anti-airport legislation,” said Tom Knobel, another former town councilman. He asserted that the laws are likely to have “unintended consequences, through inadequate review.”

Jeff Gilley of the National Business Aviation Association said he and other aviation group representatives had had a good discussion about “reasonable access restrictions” in Washington, D.C., recently with East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the sponsor of the airport legislation.

But, he said, “What you’re proposing here stands out significantly. East Hampton is really kind of out riding point on these access restrictions that we feel are subject to legal challenges.”

“I am for keeping your community quiet,” said Keith Vitolo, a pilot with his own helicopter, which he said is among the quieter craft. “I feel like I’m being victimized and discriminated against because I’m a helicopter owner. It’s me you’re putting out of business.”

“I support controls and noise regulations, but I just hope you consider the other people,” said Doug Cunningham, also the proprietor of a business for which airport traffic is key.

“Vast numbers of people” in the town are not complaining about aircraft noise, said Tina Piette of Springs, and should not be burdened with the costs of airport improvements or litigation, should the airport not remain self-sustaining. “I am adamantly opposed to a tax increase,” she told the board. “I hope you are taking your fiscal responsibility to all residents very seriously.”

“You have read, studied, and listened to every argument,” said Patricia Hope of East Hampton, who supports the regulations. “You’ve listened to outside interests. You’ve seen all the numbers. You’re ethical people. You’re our people, and I ask you to hold fast.”

The hearing record remains open for written comment through tomorrow, after which the town board will review and discuss the comments before deciding on a course of action.