Night Flights Down, But Complaints Linger at EH Airport

A small private plane taxis on the runway as a helicopter takes off overhead at the East Hampton Airport.

By Stephen J. Kotz

The good news is that overnight curfews resulted in fewer planes and helicopters flying in and out of East Hampton Airport at night last year. The bad news is there were still plenty of complaints being made about noisy aircraft, and those complaints mirrored activity at the airport.

Those were some of the findings presented to the East Hampton Town Board on Friday by Ted Baldwin of HMMH Consultants, a Massachusetts firm hired by the town to review the effect of restrictions it imposed at the airport last year in an effort to solve a longstanding controversy over noise that has pitted airport users against residents living as far away as the North Fork.

“All the work we went through resulted in rules and changes in behavior that were reasonable and rational,” Mr. Baldwin said, noting that the curfews shifted flights to “unrestricted daytime hours” and “complainants responded the same way.”

All told, 65 aircraft violated the curfew, Mr. Baldwin said. Although he did not give precise numbers, he said the number of aircraft landing at night was down significantly from the previous year. The data showed an increase in the number of flights before and after the curfews.

In most categories, there was a direct correlation between the number of flights and the number of complaints, he said. So, while the total number of flights rose by 4 percent, to 14,757, from 2014 to 2015, there was also a 4-percent increase in the number of complaints, to 17,521, during the same period, he said.

Last year, the town adopted an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew for all aircraft and an extended curfew, from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., for aircraft categorized as “noisy,” which register readings of 91 decibels or higher. While a federal judge upheld the town’s right to impose those curfews, she blocked the adoption of another restriction — one that would have limited noisy aircraft to just a single trip to and from the airport per week.

When it adopted those restrictions last year, the town board pledged to review the data before seasonal activity ramps up again at the airport in late May. At the same time, it has pledged to not accept additional funding from the Federal Aviation Administration because that funding imposes restrictions on the town’s ability to regulate the airport,

Peter Kirsch, the town’s attorney for airport matters, cautioned that data was incomplete from the first year, noting that the processes the town has in place for tracking noise is still evolving and that the curfews were not enacted until July 2.

Plus, he said, a number of lawsuits that were filed in the wake of the rule changes would delay the town’s ability to impose any more substantive restrictions this year. “To nobody’s particular surprise once those were enacted, the town was sued,” he said of the curfews and flight limits. A total of seven suits are pending, over everything from the curfews to increased landing fees, he said, adding he did not expect the courts to begin ruling on any of them until 2017.

While the nighttime curfews were expected to affect only about 8 percent of all flights, the one-trip per week limit would have affected about 20 percent of airport traffic, Mr. Kirsch said.

He praised both the town and pilots groups for getting the word out about the new rule changes and said he anticipated even better cooperation this year. “I think the town board should be really pleased with the success of these measures,” he said.

Mr. Baldwin said the data were divided among noisy aircraft and other, quieter aircraft. While the number of flights by helicopters categorized as noisy fell by 22 percent, the number of complaints associated with those flights dropped by 25 percent, Mr. Baldwin said. While the number of noisy airplane trips rose by 23 percent, the number of complaints rose by 22 percent, he said.

Other categories were not so neatly correlated. While the number of flights by planes meeting the noise threshold fell by 2 percent, the number of complaints were up by 8 percent. The number of flights by less noisy helicopters rose by 202 percent, but the number of complaints leapt by 246 percent, and the number of seaplanes rose by 54 percent, while the number of complaints more than doubled, rising by 122 percent.

Several residents said the number of noise complaints did not necessarily reflect how fed up people are with airport noise. “People just get warn out trying to send in complaints,” said Roz Block, a Wainscott resident, who said over the past year the number of flights over her house had grown immensely.

“Some people do get tired of making complaints,” added Larry Richenstein, a Sagaponack resident who is a member of the town’s airport advisory committee. “I’ve given up. I didn’t put any complaints in 2015. I thought it was a black hole.”

But Cindy Herbst of Sound Aircraft suggested that a few people were responsible for the lion’s share of complaints filed and asked if the town had “computed how many households made up the complaints that are in this report.” She also asked if all complaints were correlated to flights associated with East Hampton Airport and cited concerns that tighter restrictions would choke off airport revenue.

Kathryn Slye, a pilot, said the regulations were having a “chilling effect” on local aviation by requiring local pilots, who already pay hangar fees, to pay landing fees as well.

Len Bernard, the town’s financial officer, said the town had used surplus to make up for short-term shortfalls caused by things like increased litigation, and Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the town was aggressively pursuing new revenue in the form of leases at the airport, parking fees and leases of property at the nearby industrial park to beef up