Debates Over Air Control Tower Amid Robust Financial Outlook

The Air Traffic Control Tower at the East Hampton Airport. Michael Heller photo
The Air Traffic Control Tower at the East Hampton Airport. Michael Heller photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

The East Hampton Town Board will consider a resolution during its meeting on Thursday, December 21, to bond for $2 million for a project that will fix and upgrade runways at the East Hampton Airport. But the board on Tuesday asked airport manager Jim Brundige for more information on a request for a new, taller air traffic control tower amid complaints from some Sag Harbor residents that the current tower sends more flights over their neighborhoods during inclement weather.

The discussions about upgrades at the airport, which led to some dissention between members of the town board, followed a presentation during Tuesday’s work session by budget officer Len Bernard, who reported that the airport’s finances are robust. According to Mr. Bernard, between 2016 and 2017, the airport fund surplus grew from $1.1 million to $1.8 million, with anther $900,000 in surplus expected at the end of 2017 — a result, he said, of the town using less in legal and professional fees at the airport, and an increase in landing fees and lease and rental payments made to the town by businesses using airport land. With the sale of several properties around the airport — for a total of $4.7 million in revenue — Mr. Bernard said the town should expect an airport surplus of $7.5 million in 2018.

“That is money available for improvements, infrastructure, efficiencies — the board will have to decide how that money will be used,” he said. “If you are going to look at the financial wellbeing of the airport, we are looking at a pretty healthy fund balance and money that is available.”

Mr. Brundige pitched two improvements to the town board at the airport. The first — a $2 million project that will rebuild one of the taxiways, expand the airport to include a parallel taxiway, and introduce a new, upgraded lighting system — was developed with the town board’s approval in March. According to airport liaison Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, that project is ready to go to bid with hopes that it will be completed before the 2018 summer season.

The second was to consider putting the town’s air traffic control tower in a new location, and potentially raising its 16-foot height. According to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, residents of Sag Harbor, and, in particular, those in the communities of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills, flooded the town with complaints this summer about an increase in air traffic flying over their neighborhoods last summer. She said the route over that area was meant to be only an outbound route, but on days where the weather was poor, air traffic controllers lost visibility to the south and forced all flights over the one route, whether they were coming in or out of the airport.

Mr. Brundige said he estimated that happened 15 times last summer. Moving the tower to a different location, and raising its height, would eliminate that problem and, in general, increase safety at the airport. However, some members of the town board said they needed more information in order to quantify the need for a new tower. Board member Sylvia Overby also expressed concern about improvements at the airport that could lead to more air traffic, when the town board is engaging in a costly and lengthy process with the Federal Aviation Administration to impose restrictions on flights coming in and out of the municipally-owned airport.

“I see this as accommodating more flights – this is an expansion of the airport, it’s a bigger tower,” said Ms. Overby, questioning why the town board would expand the airport’s facility while at the same time continuing to pursue a process that will allow the town to place restrictions on flights coming in and out of the airport.

Board member and soon-to-be supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said he would like a more detailed assessment before making his own decision.