Tug Of War Over East Hampton Airport’s Future Begins

Opponents and supporters of the airport packed East Hampton Town Hall at only the second in-person board meeting since pandemic restrictions were lifted. The town is weighing whether to close the airport.

While the debate over the future of East Hampton Airport is certain to only be in the first flush of a months- or possibly years-long tug-of-war, the battle lines between the two sides pulling at the Town Board’s decision making power were laid down on Tuesday, July 6, in stark, if predictable, contrast.

Those from the growing cohort of South Fork residents who have aligned to demand the airport be shuttered or its traffic greatly curtailed, reiterated now familiar tales of how the “droning,” “thundering,” “thumping,” or “roaring” of aircraft passing over their houses ruins backyard barbecues, drowns out conversations and leaves many something close to shellshocked. They called the airport a fantastical luxury of convenience for a relative handful of super-rich summer visitors that is made available only at the expense of the less affluent with no discernible benefit in return.

Pilots and their advocates, on the other hand, said that the airport plays a critical role in the local community, both as an economic driver and as a lifeline for emergency services and a key asset that the town should maintain. They sought to minimize the perception of the number of residents affected by noise and challenged claims that the airport is significant contributor to air pollution in a town that has set ambitious goals for reducing its carbon footprint.

“This airport serves a select few while dumping on the rest of this community,” said one resident of Sag Harbor, who said his house is 6 miles from the airport but has helicopters and jets flying over as low as 800 feet on cloudy days. “It has become unbearable and unsustainable. From Thursday to Monday, we are subjected to an endless line of helicopters dumping on us from morning to night with the heaviest traffic coming at times when we are trying to enjoy time with our family.”

With the strings attached to federal grants expiring in a little more than two months, giving the town the power to close the airport if it sees fit, the Town Board on Tuesday held its second work session of the spring on what it has dubbed the “revisioning” of the airport, an effort to stack up evidence of pros and cons that it will use to make the much anticipated decision of whether the airport earns its keep.

After losing a court battle over the town’s right to impose restrictions over flight patterns on its own, the town’s legal advisors have said that the lone bargaining chip East Hampton has in its now 7-year quest to rein in aircraft traffic is the power to close it down completely.

East Hampton Town is beginning to weigh the future of East Hampton Airport and whether it should be closed down, temporarily or otherwise, after FAA grant assurances expire later this year. Michael Wright

The town’s main attorney on the matter has said that closing the airport would give it the power to drag the FAA, which has repeatedly stymied local efforts to impose new flight constraints, to the negotiation table and craft parameters under which it would agree to re-open the airport.

But plane owners have said they fear that once the airport was officially closed, legal challenges from those who wish to see it never reopened under any circumstances might make an intended “temporary” closure permanent.

A pilots’ group, the East Hampton Community Alliance, conducted an economic impact study that estimated the airport as responsible for nearly $80 million in local economic impact. A study by town consultants put the direct benefit at less than $20 million and as little as $7 million.

On Tuesday, another town consultant analyzed the air pollution factors the airport introduces to the community — as many of those who have long opposed the airport because of the noise it generates have more recently seized on the environmental impacts as grounds for eliminating the airport in a town that has long prioritized environmental improvements.

The consultants told the board that greenhouse gasses released by aircraft using the airport account for a little less than 6 percent of total carbon emissions in the town — paling in comparison to the emissions of the tens of thousands of daily automobile trips. The consultant, University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles, said that it is hard to forecast how much closing the airport would reduce emissions without a “diversion study” that looks at how the people who would otherwise have flown might travel to and from the area.

But the East Hampton Community Alliance presented its own environmental study that said the environmental signature of the airport is paltry in the grand scheme and that the study conducted by the town’s consultants was deeply flawed and greatly outweighed by the benefits the airport provides.

Alex Amirhamzeh of East Quogue, a senior flight officer with the Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force’s civilian auxiliary, said that CAP relies on airports like East Hampton to base search and rescue and disaster response operations.

“The airport is critical mission base during search and rescue mission,” he said, noting that HTO’s long runways, fuel depot and other services at the airport make it the easternmost airport suitable for such missions on Long Island for airlifts to a community otherwise cut off in an emergency. “It could be a critical mobilization point in the event of a natural disaster.”

Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said over the past year, his office has been beset by new cries of complaint from residents of neighborhoods in Hampton Bays, Shinnecock Hills, Tuckahoe, Noyac and Sag Harbor, over which shifted flight paths now direct helicopters.

After years of the recommended route for helicopters flying east taking them over Long Island Sound before cutting across the North Fork to head into East Hampton, the growing chorus of complaints and political appeals from residents there convinced the Eastern Region Helicopter Council to shift the recommended route to the South Shore. But the new route brings the choppers inland over the Shinnecock Canal and then up the Peconics and over portions of Noyac and Sag Harbor on a beeline for the airport.

Mr. Schiavoni said that he will be penning a letter to the EHRC asking that the November route, as the new southern-transition route is known, be abandoned. He said that all flights should use the Sierra route, which follows the south shore all the way to East Hampton before transitioning inland over Georgica Pond, and that helicopters should remain at least 1 mile offshore until they turn inland.

Air traffic controllers have said the Sierra route is problematic for inbound helicopters because the aircraft approaching from the south are not visible from the tower until they are almost over the airport because of the treeline. A request to the Town Board for a taller tower was rejected.

How the aviation world would react to a closure of the airport is a great unknown with many possibilities, some of which may be less desirable than the problems residents now face, businessman Andrew Sabin told the board.

The airstrip in Montauk, floating helipads in local bays, and even the expansion of an existing helipad within the Bistrian family’s sand pit on Springs Fireplace Road, are all possible cracks in the perceived dam against flights that closing HTO might seem. Mr. Sabin, seemingly only half-joking, said he’d fund the construction of new helipads at the Bistrian’s if the town closed the airport.

“People are going to fly out here anyway,” Mr. Sabin said. “Helicopters will go direct to Montauk with no consideration of flying over water or anything.”

Indeed, residents of Montauk have sided with the pro-airport advocates, solely in the fear that a closure of the airport in East Hampton would mean a new stampede of aircraft to Montauk’s small airstrip — even though its size and remote positioning would mean few if any jets and a fraction of the helicopters using HTO now would shift their destinations that far eastward.

Tom Bodgan, founder of a residents group called Montauk United that boasts 1,800 resident members, said that he’d been told by charter helicopter companies that they would shift as much as 70 percent of their flights to Montauk. The Montauk Airport, which is privately owned, would see a more than 200-percent increase in commercial traffic, a total of 11,000 flights or more per year, he said he was told.

He also recounted a pledge his group had pushed Town Board members into previously: that they would not support closure of the East Hampton Airport if it would mean dialing up air traffic to Montauk. Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc himself reiterated that pledge on Tuesday.

“We believe closure is not a solution at all,” Mr. Bogdan said. “It’s just transfer of a significant problem from one area of East Hampton to another area.”