Consultant Calls on Town To Plan Other Uses for East Hampton Airport Property

Bill O'Connor of Cooley LLP presents options for the future of East Hampton Airport to the East Hampton Town Board. Peter Boody photo

The idea of closing the town-owned East Hampton Airport when its federal grant assurances expire in 2021 appeared to gain new traction in East Hampton Town Hall on Tuesday as the surest way to stop the noise problem its traffic causes.

Having a plan for putting the 600-acre airport property to other uses — including open space, parkland and maybe even a smaller, privately-run airport that legally could be closed to helicopters — was one of three conclusion the Town Board’s aviation consultant, attorney Bill O’Connor of the San Diego firm Cooley LLP, presented at a work session Tuesday.

Another was to continue seeking permission from the FAA to restrict airport activity on the basis of a “Part 161” application for noise relief, which Mr. O’Connor said had “significant limitations” due to East Hampton’s special circumstances but was “likely” to give the town the right to impose blanket curfews on all airport traffic during certain hours. The Part 161 process was developed for complaints about major airline transport hubs, not general aviation facilities like East Hampton Airport, he said.

A third conclusion was to continue to pursue federal legislation to require the FAA to set up special rules — an air traffic management plan — to give the region relief from the airport’s noise, a path that failed to produce results in 2018.

Mr. O’Connor’s presentation followed one given by the town’s airport noise consultant Mary Ellen Eagan of HMMH, who reported that noise complaints for the airport dropped 23 percent from 2017 to 2018 but they remained “significantly higher” than they were in 2016, before a court threw out town access restrictions the board adopted in 2014 to curtail airport noise. She said more than half the complaints are for helicopter operations, which Mr. O’Connor later said skyrocketed from about one-quarter of all operations two years ago to one-third in 2018.

Airport critics began talking more than ever about closing the airport in late 2016, after the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out East Hampton’s 2014 regulations imposing overnight curfews and severely restricting access for what the town called “noisy” aircraft — especially larger helicopters and older jets — to one arrival and departure a week. The town appealed the decision but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc commented after the work session Tuesday that closing the airport in late 2021, when the last contracts expire that the town signed over two decades ago in exchange for accepting federal airport grants, has always been an option. Mr. O’Connor himself has listed it as a possibility ever since the Town Board hired him more than a year ago to handle its airport strategy and guide its Part 161 application.

But in his presentation on Tuesday, he went further, telling the board to “make it part of the plan.” He called closing the airport “a clear path to resolve this problem,” an option that could be pursued even as the town moves forward on its Part 161 application. He also said the town — even without planning for alternative uses — could simply shut down the airport in September, 2021, and then “negotiate terms to reopen it” with users “or figure out alternate uses” there may be for the property.

Mr. O’Connor’s presentation prompted Kent Feuerring, the president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, the local pilot group, to issue a press statement soon after the meeting. Mr. Feuerring and several members of the group attended the session.

Referring to noise statistics that had been reported earlier at Tuesday’s work session, Mr. Feuerring said in a text message on Tuesday that his group appreciated that “noise complaints have dropped by 28 percent, and that only 442 people out of the more than 150,000 in the complaint coverage area, made complaints about aircraft in 2018.”

He was referring to the “distinct households” or most likely single complainants who file most of the airport 26,000 complaints; and to the helicopter-only noise complaints, which dropped 28 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to Ms. Eagan.

“However, we are concerned,” Mr. Feuerring added, “by the fact that the primary recommendation made by Cooley was that the Town Board should begin preparing to close the airport in 2021, and that they should focus their efforts on deciding what to do with airport land after it has been closed.”

Mr. Cooley told the board that federal law requires access to all “public use” airports — those operated by a public entity such as the town — to be unrestricted, where grant assurances are in place or not. If the board chose to allow a smaller airport with a short, single runway to continue to operate, it might shut out corporate jets, which need longer runways, but it wouldn’t keep helicopters away.

To allow a private group to operate the airport as a private or restricted facility, “You would have to give up control,” he told the board, although some restrictions could be mandated in a lease agreement or deed covenant.

Mr. O’Connor told the board that helicopter operations constituted one-third of all airport activity in 2014 and fell to 2019 percent in 2015, when the town’s 2014 restrictions were being observed. They may be on the rise because of an overall increase in activity, not the loss of the restrictions, he said.

“The harder issues is how to address the root of the problem,” he said: “the volume of operations that lead to complaints.” He noted that Sikorsky S76 and Bell 407 helicopters and the Cessna 208 amphibious seaplane “are driving the reactions of the community” by drawing the most noise complaints. “That is what I believe will be most important in the Part 161” application process: “addressing the frequency of problematic operations as we go forward.”

But the FAA “ has used a metric,” he noted; an annual average decibel level of 65 that it used to determine whether or not there is an airport noise problem in any community, and “that doesn’t work here for your airport,” Mr. O’Connor said.  He was referring to the fact no aircraft noise reaches 65 decibels in the areas where noise complaints are concentrated under the airport’s helicopter arrival and departure routes.

As the FAA sees it, Mr. O’Connor noted, “There is no noise problem at East Hampton Airport.” Nevertheless, he added, “The FAA wants to help” the town resolve its airport noise problem because it doesn’t “want to see the airport closed.”