Express Sessions: Panelists Discuss The Future Of The East Hampton Airport

The East Hampton Town Airport. MICHAEL WRIGHT

At least one East Hampton Town official said during an Express Sessions forum last week, focusing on the future of the East Hampton Airport, that there might be a middle ground in which the airport could stay open while changes were made to reduce noise emanating from the facility.

But proponents from the two sides — keeping it open or shuttering it completely — remained convinced that it would most likely be one option or the other.

“The thing I want to make clear, maybe more than once today, is that we’re not looking at an ‘either or’ question here,” Town Councilman Jeff Bragman told forum attendees. “It’s not a question of to have an airport or to close the airport. There are a lot of gradations in between those two extremes.”

Calls to close the airport — which is home to not only personal aircraft enthusiasts but ride-share helicopter businesses and small private jets ferrying weekend visitors and second-home owners to and from the South Fork — have grown, as have noise complaints from residents across the East End in the flight paths of the aircraft.

While Federal Aviation Administration rules prevented any serious talk about the airport’s closure in years past, mandates tied to “grant assurances” with the FAA are set to expire next fall, leaving the decision about the town-owned airport’s future wholly in the Town Board’s hands.

Last week’s forum, “Turbulence: Can East Hampton Airport Be Tamed Without Being Closed?” was hosted virtually on the Zoom platform by the Express News Group on Thursday, March 18.

In addition to Mr. Bragman, panelists included: Barry Raebeck, co-founder of Say No to KHTO; Kathryn Slye of the East Hampton Community Alliance; Kent Feuerring, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association; and John Kirrane, a member of the Southampton Town Airport Noise Advisory Committee.

The forum was moderated by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

Ms. Slye’s organization, the East Hampton Community Alliance, which has promoted the continued use of the airport, has drafted a “pilot’s pledge,” intended to reduce noise through the voluntary compliance of airport operators to a number of abatement measures, including a voluntary curfew of flights from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., the primary use of water routes for helicopters and sea planes; and designated peak arrival and departure routes.

“We have a very high expectation, or expectation of a high compliance rate, with our pilot pledge program,” she said, “and our residents, our community, should notice a discernible reduction, significant noise impacts across the community.”

Dr. Raebeck, whose group would like to see the airport closed, suggested, however, that the curfew included in the pledge would be ineffective in reducing noise, since most flights occur during the daytime anyway.

“The suggestion was a curfew from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., which means, basically, all waking hours, I’m still hearing aircraft,” he said. “That’s a hell of a curfew.

“That’s just what I mean: That’s their idea of a curfew? That’s what we have now. I’m not getting many flights over at midnight, plus I’m asleep with the windows closed, so I wouldn’t even know. That’s not much of a curfew — that doesn’t help.”

While noise emanating from the airport has been the primary source of complaint from residents, Dr. Raebeck has long held that environmental concerns are just as, if not more, egregious. His group has released studies focused on emissions and pollution coming from aircraft — noise pollution, as well as visual pollution, groundwater impacts, psychological impacts, carbon emissions and the danger posed by aircraft crashes.

Dr. Raebeck said he conducted a study on carbon emissions from flights at the airport. “It’s pretty much basic arithmetic,” he said. “So I first did the calculation in 2016 when there were 26,000 operations at the airport, which is a lot of operations. And the figure that I came up, which I believe is conservative, I erred on the side of being conservative, was 38 million pounds of carbon emissions generated by the airport.

“In 2019, just before the pandemic, we were at 30,000 operations, a dramatic increase, and the aircraft emissions, the carbon emissions, were 51 million pounds, an increase of 34 percent in just three years.”

Mr. Bragman noted that the town is also conducting studies of its own as part of what he termed a “revisioning process.”

“The idea behind it is to provide some empirical data that would help guide the conversation and give the folks who want to participate in front of the Town Board some facts to look at, accept, reject, criticize, whatever. The topics are mostly predictable.

“Economics is probably something we’re going to take a look at. We will probably have some kind of environmental review likely taking into account some of the issues that Barry Raebeck was talking about, especially carbon outputs. We also want to have a pretty simple presentation, I think, from the town planner, so that people coming in can see what the constraints are of the airport property itself.”

When asked by Mr. Shaw whether he felt the process would lead to some type of “middle ground” between the proponents and opponents, Mr. Bragman reiterated that he didn’t see it as an all-or-nothing choice — although he did admit that closing the airport could conceivably be an end result.

“It’s not an ‘either or’ choice,” he said. “The issue has evolved. I remember being out here in the early ’80s, and the airport really wasn’t a problem, as far as I was concerned, or to most people. But you’re right, it has changed, and for a long time the idea of shutting the airport, I think, was a very extreme position and a very unlikely position.

“But because of the escalation of noise, it’s now become a viable alternative to consider.

“But I like to think of it as the two poles,” Mr. Bragman continued. “One of the poles is maintaining the airport as it is, just letting it go on as it is. That’s probably on one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is closing the airport entirely. And there are gradations of uses that we could have in between those two opposite poles.”

He said that alternate, less obtrusive uses could be considered for the airport property — which is deemed a special groundwater protection area — if aviation uses were limited or eliminated. Dr. Raebeck and Mr. Kirrane said they would like to see the property returned to its natural state and preserved.

“I think that the people that I speak with have come to appreciate just how fragile our ecosystem is here on the East End, and the irony is that the reason people came here was because the East End is such a special place between our beaches and our parks and our quaint villages,” Mr. Kirrane said. “I know many things are challenging that these days, but this is one of those opportunities to do something that will be a generational gift that we preserve that land as open space.”

Ms. Slye and Mr. Feurring said they were willing to try to help find that elusive middle ground, but both sides appeared entrenched in their positions on the years-long debate about the 84-year-old airport.

“I just want to look at both sides,” Mr. Feurring said. “I have always tried to look at both sides, a community influencer, if you will, to a degree here, and I think I’ve pushed and I’d like to push now, especially now for us to work together with John and with Barry and with everybody to move forward in a way that makes sense for everybody, and doesn’t take away something from one group just to give it to another group.

“But for us to say, ‘We just have to keep the airport open’ and for others to say, ‘We just have to close it,’ without any middle ground — that’s a non-starter for everybody, and that hasn’t helped us. Maybe we can now come together and work on, on the future.”

Mr. Kirrane, however, said he didn’t think it would be possible to find compromise. “Again, with all due respect to Kent and to Kathryn, I know they are sincerely trying to find a middle ground. But when you asked me can a middle ground be found, I don’t think so.

“First, the noise and pollution will never go away if it’s open. Secondly, the great opportunity to repurpose that hundreds of acres into something uniquely great here on the South Fork, we’d pass up on it. We wouldn’t have it. We’ll get bogged down in trying to have this debate of, ‘Is there a middle ground?’

“When you asked me, is there a middle ground, as tough as this is to say to my friend Kent and to Kathryn, I don’t think it’s there.”

Mr. Kirrane added that while he values the discussion, for the people suffering from the impacts, there can be no real compromise. “The reason I appreciate being involved in this discussion is this pain is being inflicted on people who don’t use the airport. They don’t own the airport. They have no say in the governance of the airport, but they have become the doormat to the airport. It’s unfair. It’s unsustainable.”