East Hampton Town Board Adopts Airport Restrictions, Aviation Industry Files Suit

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By Mara Certic

As it promised to do, the East Hampton Town Board on Thursday, April 16, adopted three laws restricting traffic at the East Hampton Airport, in what many consider to be the first real attempt in 20 years to muffle the noise from aircraft landing and taking off.

Just five days later, on Tuesday, April 21, the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, a coalition of airport supporters, announced it had filed a federal lawsuit against the town, seeking to overturn the new restrictions.

The vote to impose curfews and place a restriction on touch-and-go operations was met by a standing ovation from some members of the audience who have spent the past several years fighting for a quieter airport.

The board voted unanimously to adopt both curfews; one makes mandatory a currently voluntary curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for all aircraft. The other imposes a curfew from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. for “noisy” aircraft, which are defined as aircraft with published Effective Perceived Noise in Decibel (EPNdB) ratings of 91 or higher. Councilman Fred Overton expressed some concern over the third restriction, which will limit the noisy aircraft from taking off and landing at the airport more than once per week during the summer.

“I appreciate that my colleagues are trying very hard to achieve a balance between restrictions at the airport, operations and the needs of the community,” he said on Thursday night.

“After reviewing the data, I do not believe that the balancing requires the two-operations-per-week restriction. This restriction will seriously inconvenience airport users, and I’m not yet convinced it will produce as many benefits as my colleagues believe. I would prefer to conduct the balancing in a manner that slightly favors the users of the airport ,” he said before casting the sole vote against the legislation. He added that he felt the town should be implementing the rules incrementally, in order to make sure they address the actual problem at hand.

“Let’s impose the fewest restrictions possible and if it proves necessary, we can impose additional restrictions next year. I think that that approach is politically more realistic,” he said, adding that he is still concerned about the possible diversion of aircraft to other airports.

Supporters, opponents and skeptics addressed the board during the public portion prior to the vote. Members of the aviation committee, who have claimed the restrictions could damage the local economy, infuriate pilots and result in the eventual closure of the airport, took the opportunity once again to try to dissuade the board from going ahead with the new rules.

“It sounds like we’re about to rule on something that hasn’t been fully planned out,” said local pilot Bruno Schreck. Reggie Cornelia, vice-president of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee, said that the plans were being “rushed through,” and that voting on Thursday night would be “hurrying up unnecessarily.”

But advocates for quieter skies said that the town has been anything but hasty in its decision-making. David Gruber, who sat on both the airport noise subcommittee and the budget and finance committee, said that the two groups have met tirelessly, advising the town board with 13 sets of findings and no fewer than four professional studies.

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, requested the town board confirm its plans to monitor the restrictions throughout the summer, so that “if there are unintended consequences, you have the ability to pull back the reins.”

“This is not a perfect solution,” Mr. Samuelson said. “First attempts to deal with problems of that magnitude rarely get the whole thing right, right out of the gate.” He added that the three restrictions represented a “reasonable, well-measured proposal.”

The town board and Airport Manager Jemille Charlton will now try to develop the monitoring process for the summer, as well as penalties, provisions and the details of enforcement.

Three cameras are slated to be added at the airport, and Mr. Charlton is planning to get more still. “I’m currently in the process of building a public portal,” he added, which will enable residents to track disturbances.

In terms of specifics as to how he plans on enforcing the three restrictions, Mr. Charlton said, “we’re working on that now,” adding that the new cameras will enable him to track aircraft from the moment they take off, without having to use radar.

A public hearing on enforcement and penalties is scheduled for the board’s meeting on Thursday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m.

Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, released a statement almost immediately after the vote, which stated that aviation supporters “are now forced to consider legal action to remedy this unfortunate situation.”

Five days later, on Tuesday, April 21, the coalition filed suit against the town,  claiming that the three regulations adopted last week “violate and conflict with federal law and policy.”

The lawsuit was filed in the federal court’s Eastern District of New York, and seeks and injunction “to enjoin the town from unlawfully restricting access to East Hampton Airport in violation with federal law.”

In the lawsuit, the group claims the restrictions are discriminatory and will cause irreparable harm, and that the board didn’t have the authority to enact any of the new laws.

“The town has knowingly and purposefully transgressed the bounds of its extremely limited authority,” the suit claims.

Of the eight parties listed as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, five of them are out-of-state corporations or LLCS located in New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio and Virginia. One of the plaintiffs is Liberty Helicopters, Inc., a New York corporation located in Kearny, New Jersey. The crowd-sourcing company “Blade,” which provides $500 helicopter tickets for the 45-minute trip from Manhattan to East Hampton, uses Liberty Helicopters as its primary operator. The other two plaintiffs are Sound Aircraft Services, which provides ground and fueling services at the East Hampton Airport, and the non-profit Friends of the East Hampton Airport, Inc.

The town released a statement on Tuesday afternoon calling the lawsuit “entirely predictable,” and bringing up specific facts it “conveniently” forgot to mention in the 34-page complaint.

“The town is fully prepared for this litigation and will vigorously defend its legal and constitutional right to impose reasonable, non-arbitrary, and carefully balanced restrictions,” the statement reads.

“While we anticipated this lawsuit, it is sad that these airport users are now going to force the town to spend scarce airport funds to defend these restrictions rather than working to make this airport the best it can be.”

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