Tensions Soar at East Hampton Airport Hearing as Critics and Supporters Air Their Views

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Heller_EH Town Board Airport Hearing @ LTV 3-12-15_7268_LR

Andy Sabin warned the board that adopting the four proposed regulations would hurt the local economy. Photography by Michael Heller. 

By Mara Certic

Since proposed flight restrictions at East Hampton Airport were unveiled last month, many members of the local aviation community have argued the laws will surely result in increased taxes and the eventual closure of the airport.

According to some, the four restrictions the town board is considering would not only have repercussions on local aviators, but will also have a devastating domino effect on the local economy and would result in large swathes of summer visitors and second homeowners picking up shop and relocating to towns and villages that are friendlier to air traffic.

“We are a resort community dependent on seasonal traffic, and that can’t be ignored. Facilitating access to the Hamptons is what feeds our economy,” said local pilot and hangar-owner Rod Davidson at a hearing on the proposals on Thursday, March12.

“The proposed restrictions on aircraft traffic are a death sentence not only to the airport but to hundreds of jobs and countless businesses. I find it baffling that the town board continues to place the agenda of a handful of people above preserving one of its most important economic assets,” he said.

Several of those who attended the hearing to speak out in opposition of the proposed regulations were employed by Sound Aircraft Services, the 25-year-old business that provides fueling and ground services at the airport. Maureen Quigley, a 22-year-employee of Sound Aircraft, was adamant that the airport would not be able to survive a trial run of what she described were “egregious” restrictions.

“To some extent, any change in the airport affects the working people more than any other group in the town,” said Mitchell Moss from the New York University  Center for Transportation, because the working people work for many airport-users, he said.

Ms. Quigley added that the restrictions are in effect condemning her clients “for being rich and privileged.”

While those who complain about noise have for years asked the town board to consider their needs over the wealthy 1 percent who frequently use the airport, airport supporters tried to turn the tables when they said that the number of people who are actually affected by noise is actually just a small, but vocal, minority, compared to the number of people who benefit from the airport.

Local pilot Bruno Schreck had several large visual aids made for the hearing, and when his presentation was cut short because of a 3-minute limit on comments, he returned before the town board at its work session on Tuesday, March 17, to finish his presentation.

Mr. Schreck believes that the public has been misled by the presentation of complaint data in previous noise analyses prepared for the town. Mr. Schreck maintained that the town’s use of a logarithmic scale distorted the facts, and made it look as though more households had complained, when in fact, 10 houses represent one half of all complaints.

Mr. Schreck prepared one graph, which was intended to visually show the reward and risks of the airport. Mr. Schreck concluded that the rewards outweighs the risks, with the airport enabling 8,666 people to enjoy summertime on the East End and only ruining the summers of 200 local residents who are “frequent complainers.” Mr. Schreck’s figures are based on the assumption that there were approximately four passengers served in each of the 26,000 operations at the East Hampton Airport last year; he then divided 104,000 by 12, assuming that each of the passengers came to the East End for all 12 of the summer weekends.

Mr. Schreck also warned that if the airport is in fact shut down, planes will continue to travel overhead and disrupt residents as city-dwellers will still jet over the East End to second homes in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, but will no longer contribute money to the local economy.

Amagansett resident Andrew Sabin said he moved to the area 24 years ago, and the airport was one of the big draws. Airport users pay a huge chunk of local taxes, Mr. Sabin said, and he, like many aviators, warned the town that these restrictions would likely result in lengthy litigation. The town has already earmarked $3 million for airport-related litigation.

“Wouldn’t this money be better spent helping charities in this town?” he asked. Mr. Sabin’s son Jonathan also warned the town board that restrictions would only succeed in enraging helicopter users and said that if the airport users got together and agreed not to pay their property taxes “the town would be broke over night.”

“I know quite a few of the helicopter users at the airport. I can tell you right now that each and every one of them could afford a yacht, with a helipad, and would gladly park their yacht right out on the water here and land right on the yachts,” he said. “It’s dangerous to enrage that demographic.”

And on the other side of the aisle…

For East End residents craving quieter skies, four proposed flight restrictions at East Hampton Airport are like the light at the end of 20-year-old tunnel.

Heller_EH Town Board Airport Hearing @ LTV 3-12-15_7185_LR
North Haven Village Trustee Dianne Skilbred asked the town to put in place all four of the regulations.

Now that restrictions are finally in sight, supporters spent their allotted individual 3 minutes of public comment at a hearing on the proposals at LTV Studios in Wainscott on Thursday, March 12, thanking the town board for its hard work and transparency and asking it to “hold fast” with the proposed legislation.

In addition to environmentalists and residents, elected officials from four East End towns and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski commended the members of the board for the courage they have shown in what has been described in acting for the greater good in what has become a regional issue.

Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming urged the town to continue with its airport diversion study, which seeks to find out where flights barred from East Hampton would ultimately end up. As the town’s liaison for both Noyac and Sag Harbor, she assured the town board “that there are many, many people in the community whose quality life is impacted” by aircraft noise.

“We thank you for your courage,” wrote Vincent Cavello in a letter to the town board read by Kathleen Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition. “It is a sad truth that East Hampton is becoming a poster child for inequality in this country.”

While the Friends of the East Hampton Airport Coalition, a group made up of several New Jersey-based aviation businesses, and other entities have filed suit against the town, Mr. Cavello’s letter said the board “responded to these and other lawsuits without breaking stride, knowing that the law is on the side of those who own the airport—the citizens of East Hampton—not those who exploit the airport and the town for their own economic gain.”

David Gruber, who has been an airport opponent for decades, said that the rumors that the proposed laws would make the airport financially unviable were “theatrical nonsense.” He also referred to a group of pilots filing suits against the town who call themselves the friends of the East Hampton Airport as “the self-serving operators from far away.”

Mr. Gruber serves on the town’s airport budget and finance advisory committee), which has been so far unable to come to a consensus about the economic impacts on the airport if the proposed rules are implemented. Members of the aviation community have said this inability to reach a consensus shows that the proposed restrictions are discriminatory and extreme. Those who complain about the noise had a different take.

“The airport can easily support itself without any need of FAA grants or taxpayer subsidies. Its income of more than $1 million a year is more than enough for all of its capital budget and other needs,” Mr. Gruber said.

He conceded the town would have to find ways to replace landing and fuel revenue if the town adopted the restrictions.

“A 50-percent landing fee increase would almost surely suffice. It sounds like a lot only because landing fees have been kept artificially low for years by FAA subsidies. The landing fee for a small aircraft would increase to $16.50—less than parking at Main Beach,” he said.

“The additional $330 for a $36 million Gulf Stream 5 that costs $7,500 an hour to operate would also be the cost of three minutes of flight time. This relationship that the fee increase equals about three minutes of flight time holds true across the board. It is a trivial amount,” he added.

Tensions rose on Thursday night when Wainscott resident Irving Paler began naming those who have logged the most complaints against the East Hampton Airport, asking them “Where do you find the time?”

Not only did those supporting the regulations begin applauding the top-complainers, but East Hampton resident Paul Keeber took it upon himself to respond to Mr. Paler’s question.

“I’m sitting with my beautiful wife, at our beautiful home on the back deck. Suddenly the overwhelming noise from a helicopter’s blade forces me to stop speaking to my wife. At that moment we pick up the phone right next to us and call the complaint line. Eight minutes later, a helicopter blade overhead forces me to stop speaking to my wife and I pick up the phone and I call the complaint line. And then 14 minutes later a helicopter blade overhead forces me to stop speaking to my wife so we call the complaint line,” he explained.

Many supporters of the legislation likened the regulations to any other laws that aim to conserve and preserve. “These resolutions embody a time-honored tradition of policy for the greater good, to help industry bring its standards up to community values,” Ms. Cunningham said on Thursday. “We are not asking people not to come here, we’re asking them to come quietly,” she added.

In response to claims that many people come to East Hampton simply because they can fly here in helicopters in less than an hour, Sag Harbor’s Patricia Currie responded “such people are mythical beasts, they’re unicorns, they don’t exist.”

Ms. Currie reminded the room that visitors have been making the long trip to the East End since the horse and buggy.

“If there are people who won’t live here without helicopters, they will be replaced by others who will,” Ms. Currie added.

“We need helicopters like Shelter Island needs a bridge and Montauk needs high speed ferry service to Connecticut casinos. Please pass the restrictions,” she said. “We will survive.”

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