East Hampton Airport Future Is Unclear In Call For Study

The impact of East Hampton Airport on the local economy will have to be studied in advance of the coming debate about whether the airport should be closed after federal grant assurances sunset in 2021. Michael Wright

The East Hampton Town Board has backed away from what was expected to be a costly and time-consuming effort to convince the Federal Aviation Administration that the town should be allowed to impose new restrictions on flights at East Hampton Airport.

Instead, town officials have begun talking about starting an analysis of the importance of the airport to the town — with an eye toward a coming debate about whether the airport should be closed and its 600 acres put to some other purpose.

Members of the town’s Airport Management Advisory Committee said last week that the sort of detailed economic and alternative-uses analyses that would inform such a decision need to get underway soon. Legal restrictions tied to past FAA grants expire in less than two years.

“How do we go about starting an economic study as soon as possible?” asked Kent Feuerring, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, a pilots organization, at Friday’s meeting of the committee.

Town Councilman Jeff Bragman, who is the Town Board liaison to the committee, said the Town Board should get the ball rolling on the studies it will need immediately.

The studies that would be needed, committee members said, would be an analysis of the potential other uses of the sprawling property that accommodate town codes and address environmental concerns, and one that explores what direct financial benefit the airport generates for the East End community, encompassing job creation, driving spending, property values and other benefits.

Hypothetical uses of the airport property ranged from having the runways and tarmac torn up for a solar farm, to affordable housing, to recreational activities — but any such considerations would need detailed guidance.

Mr. Bragman noted that the property is in a critical groundwater recharge area, and that residential development like affordable housing could be only very limited. The use of the cleared land for the installation of solar panels would be an obvious option, he said.

The economic impact generated by East Hampton Airport will be a key matter for study as the town prepares to debate whether the airport should be closed after federal grant assurances expire in 2021.

How much of an economic driver the airport actually is for the local community has been a topic of debate and speculation for years. Real estate and aviation industry groups have claimed the airport brings many tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. But even pro-aviation advocates like Mr. Feuerring acknowledge that some of those studies are tainted with calculations that take into account financial impacts far from the local economy — like the salaries of pilots who fly into the airport but are based in New Jersey.

Mr. Bragman said that he is doubtful that when an honest and focused analysis of the airport’s actual impact on the local community is tallied it will prove to be of particular consequence.

He said it seems unlikely that the people who currently are willing to spend hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to fly to East Hampton on summer weekends would suddenly lose the desire to visit if there were no airport.

“I feel like the harder you make it for people to get here, the more they’re going to want to come,” he half-joked. “That’s the New York flavor.”

Other details will also need to be explored, like demographic studies of who the airport users are and where they go when they disembark from aircraft there, as well as other ancillary community benefits to having the airport available and what potential impacts closing the airport in East Hampton might have on other areas.

Devising an orderly process by which to proceed with any discussion of the airport’s future will be a key chore for the Town Board in the near future, to keep the conversation from spiraling into open warfare between interest groups, the councilman told the committee.

“What we want to avoid is those huge meetings where everyone is just shouting at each other — they are just not productive,” Mr. Bragman said, recalling the hours-long caustic hearings the Town Board held in 2014 and 2015, when he was serving as a legal advocate for noise-affected residents, when the town was drafting restrictions intended to reduce aircraft traffic and lessen noise impacts on homes under common flight paths. “The key is constructing a process that is orderly and divide it into small enough topics that we can keep everything in focus.”

In 2015, the Town Board introduced two curfews on aircraft and a third law intended to restrict the number of flights — a strategy aimed at the burgeoning charter helicopter industry that has taken helicopter flights to the airport to new highs every year.

After allowing the curfews to be used for two seasons, federal courts ultimately struck down the town’s restrictions, saying that they would have to be approved through the FAA process. The town spent more than $2 million of airport revenues on the legal battle.

The board had been moving toward embarking on what is known as a Part 161 application to the FAA. Of the handful of municipalities that have tried Part 161 applications, none has ever received permission to restrict flights.

After initially offering a cautiously optimistic outlook, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said the Town Board’s aviation industry consultants have advised that history would seem to indicate the town would have little chance at success through the Part 161 process of gaining anything more than fairly minimal curfews.

“Considering the fact that no entity has ever been successful with a Part 161, and the number of years it takes to go through the process and the expense, and the fact that it is likely to never get us anything more than nighttime curfews, the board is thinking about abandoning that approach,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

The grant assurances from the last round of FAA grants the town accepted will expire in September 2021.

“We’ve already had some discussions with our attorney on the best way to proceed,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.