Flights, Complaints and Legal Fees Way Up in East Hampton

Air traffic over Memorial Day Weekend. Photo by Michael Heller.
Air traffic over Memorial Day Weekend. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Mara Certic

Just six months after the East Hampton Town Board adopted three laws aimed at quieting the skies around East Hampton Airport, the number of flights in and out of the airport has increased, the number of complaints about those flights has spiked, and this week, the town board increased its legal budget yet again to cope with ongoing lawsuits over its efforts.

East Hampton Airport Manager Jemille Charlton presented the town board with the information for July operations at Tuesday’s work session. From January 1 through July 31 of this year, total operations were up 29 percent over last year—with the number of jets decreasing slightly but seaplane activity up 70 percent.

When the board revised its proposed restrictions last winter, it increased the decibel level before an aircraft would be categorized as “noisy” or subjected to another, related rule, which would limit such aircraft to one trip a week to the airport. At the time, airport critics voiced concern that the change would result in a proliferation of seaplanes.

Complaints about seaplanes specifically have increased by 149 percent since last year with total complaints going up by about 59 percent. Mr. Charlton explained that there has been a 7-percent increase in the number of households filing complaints, and a 40-percent rise in the number of average complaints per household.

Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who acts as town board liaison to the airport, gave a presentation about the status of ongoing airport litigation, before the board adopted a resolution increasing the cap on its budget for aviation attorney Kaplan, Rockwell & Kirsch, to $875,000. The board has already spent $694,000 on litigation related to the airport, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez explained, and it has capped the amount it will spend on appeals at $100,000.

The board is currently involved in six different lawsuits, each of which Ms. Burke-Gonzalez outlined.

“While we anticipated that there would be lawsuits, it is unfortunate that these airport users are forcing the town to spend airport funds to defend these restrictions rather than working cooperatively to help us achieve the best balance between users and residents,” she said.

“That said, the town was fully prepared for this litigation and we are vigorously defending our laws in every forum,” she said..”

The town is currently working with its noise consultant, HMMH, to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing laws using both operation and complaint data during the summer season, which it has defined as May 1 through September 30. Once that is complete, the board will present it to the public and welcome community input.

In other action, during the public portion of the work session, a couple people took to the podium to call for more affordable housing, spread evenly throughout the town. Diana Walker, who advocates for the East End New Leaders, addressed the board on Tuesday morning about the lack of affordable workforce housing opportunities.

She directed a few questions at the Wainscott School Board, which last year was unenthusiastic about a plan to create a 40-unit affordable housing complex in the district, for fear of the tax hike and burden it would put on the hamlet’s small school.

East Hampton School District Superintendent Richard Burns said East Hampton’s school board encourages affordable housing—but particularly encourages each of the hamlets in the town to support the cause.

“We do not believe this fiscal responsibility should fall solely on East Hampton Union Free School District. There should be more equitable distribution among the hamlets: the responsibility for affordable housing which benefits our entire town and entire community is one we must share equally and equitably,” he said.

The East End New Leaders will hold a rally in support of housing opportunity on Saturday, November 7.