By Stephen J. Kotz
East Hampton Town’s effort to control air traffic at East Hampton Airport was dealt a major blow on Friday when a federal appeals court threw out a pair of curfews the town board had imposed in June 2015.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Friday, November 4, overturned a ruling made last year by Federal District Court Justice Joanna Seybert that had allowed the town to impose the curfews, pending the outcome of a suit challenging those restrictions that had been filed by pilots groups and other airport users.
“The Town of East Hampton is deeply disappointed in the Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to enjoin the town’s three local laws regarding access restrictions at East Hampton Airport,” said town attorney Michael Sendlenski in a statement released on Friday afternoon. “The court’s opinion undermines local control of operations at the town-owned airport property and establishes that the federal bureaucracy controls regulations in the area of aviation noise abatement and control.”
Supervisor Larry Cantwell on Tuesday said the ruling put the town back at square one. “The town board has worked hard for local control, to put meaningful restrictions in place to control noise, which has been part of our effort to keep the airport open,” he said.
Although the supervisor said it would be premature to talk about closing the airport, he pointed out that there has been a growing chorus among airport opponents to do just that.
Mr. Cantwell said in imposing the curfews the town board had relied on a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration to former Congressman Tim Bishop that led it to believe it could impose reasonable restrictions without following the cumbersome procedures required by the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, a 1990 federal law that requires airport restrictions to be approved by the FAA.
Since that law was adopted, Naples, Florida, is the only community that was able to navigate the bureaucratic thicket to successfully impose curfews, Mr. Cantwell said.
“Every other one has failed for one reason or another,” he said. “And in the case of Naples, it took them four or five years and $5 or $6 million in legal expenses.”
East Hampton has spent more than $1 million in legal fees on the airport battle thus far.
In a statement issued on Friday, Kent Feuerring, the president of a pilots group, The East Hampton Aviation Association, which was not a party to the lawsuit, thanked the court for its “hard work and careful consideration” in crafting its decision.
“Aviation has been an integral part of our community for more than 80 years, and we hope this ruling will allow that tradition to continue,” he added. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Town of East Hampton and the community to find reasonable solutions for any airport noise related concerns.”
On Tuesday, he said the town had very few options available, short of crafting some type of voluntary agreement by airport users to follow curfews.
But he said it was important that the aviation community to try to work with the town.
“We have to do something,” he said. “We can’t just say, ‘We won’ and pick up our marbles and go home.”
“At some point, we have to deal with the noise in a real way,” he added. “And that is something we are going to do.”
Otherwise, he said, “people could react very poorly. Ultimately, they could move to close the airport. Obviously, that would be far down the road, but it’s in everyone’s interest to sit down and come up with some sort of plan that works for everybody.”
The court’s ruling was roundly criticized by airport opponents. “I’m shocked,” said Kathleen Cunningham, the chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, a group that has long lobbied the town for tighter rules overseeing the airport, which over the past 25 years has grown from a small facility used mostly by small planes to one used by ever larger private jets and commuter helicopters. “This is very disappointing.”
In a release issued on Monday, Ms. Cunningham described the ruling as “a huge loss for aircraft noise-affected communities island-wide.” She added, “We’ll have to go back to the drawing board to begin working on real solutions to the environmental challenges this airport causes.”
The Quiet Skies Coalition said the ruling would both encourage more airport traffic and more people to lobby for the airport’s closure.
A newly formed organization, Say No to KHTO, which has called for the airport to be shut down and replaced with environmentally friendly uses, also weighed in.
“The current town administration took office with good intentions, but their efforts have failed to quiet it down, now we must close it down,” said Patricia Currie, one of the group’s founders, in a release. “Enough pandering to aviation operators whose claims about ‘safety’ fail to conceal their real motives: unfettered access 24/7/365 and airport expansion.”
Last year, the town adopted three laws aimed at reducing noise complaints that have grown as the airport has become more popular. Those laws were immediately challenged by Friends of the East Hampton Airport Inc., Sound Aircraft Services, and a number of companies that operate helicopter commuter services.
Justice Seybert allowed the town to go forward with the curfews, but she enjoined the town from enforcing a law that would have limited noisy aircraft to one-round trip a week.
The main curfew banned all flights between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. seven days a week. A second curfew, from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., was set for “noisy” aircraft that don’t meet the stricter sound standards of more modern jets and helicopters.
The town earlier dropped a fourth law, which would have limited “touch-and-goes,” during which a plane lands and immediately takes off. Touch-and-goes are typically performed by student pilots.