Workshops Held On Future Of East Hampton Airport

A pair of jets on the tarmac at East Hampton Airport. Stephen J. Kotz photo

Residents of Wainscott and Montauk, aviation advocates and those who wish to see East Hampton Airport permanently closed, heaped opinions and ideas on the consultants leading East Hampton Town’s information gathering sessions about the future of East Hampton Airport this week — with but one common thread of understand shaking out: the status quo should not be the future at the airport.

But how a shift away from the aircraft traffic patterns — which result in too many people driven to distraction by the roar of aircraft over their homes, nearly all agreed — should come about had nearly as many angles of approach as the airport has flights on a July Friday.

The town’s consultants, Lisa Liquori and Massachusetts planning firm Dodson & Flinker, hosted three Zoom-based discussions this past week, with a fourth planned for next week.

On Monday, a discussion that had originally been planned to be held in-person at the Montauk Playhouse, attracted more than 160 participants, primarily from Montauk, where concerns are high that closing East Hampton Airport will direct more aircraft, and noise, over the hamlet.

On September 25 the town will be freed from the requirements that came with FAA grants the town accepted to help pay for maintenance at the airport up until 2001. After that date, it will be free to close the airport permanently if it sees fit. The town’s attorneys have also advised that the town could close the airport “temporarily” and then re-open it under a new flag with restrictions on the types of flights that will be accepted. Among the possible limitations that have been hinted at are a ban on all charter flights, limits on helicopters and large jets or outright bans of one or the other, or both.

For many of those living beneath flight paths leading to and from the airport that attended the September 9 meeting, the only way forward is seen to be either permanent closure or a drastic alteration of how East Hampton Airport, or KHTO as it is dubbed by the Federal Aviation Administration, is operated. For some, even drastic change seems insufficient.

“I spent five years working with the Quiet Skies Coalition — we truly believed that noise abatement initiatives could work,” said Trish Currie, a Noyac resident and founder of a group that is advocating for the permanent closure of the airport. “We thought maybe over time it could work. Unfortunately, the industry was not interested in any access restrictions … so aviation interests broke any possibility of cooperation.

“I listen to the people who call me day in and day out, they’ve lost so much of their quality of life and I don’t think they are going to get that back as long as there is an airport,” she added. “We are five towns but we are one community. On this issue we are not divided. We would like to see a passive use of the airport. We would like to see the airport close.”

From Montaukers there was a loud and clear message that while they empathize with those impacted by noise in Wainscott, Noyac and other parts of the region, they should not see some portion of that misery passed to them should KHTO close and more flights choose to head to the small strip on East Lake Drive. Finding a solution, must be a solution acceptable to residents throughout the town, they said.

“The problem with compromise is that … what do you think is going to happen to the helicopters if they restrict them by 50 percent? Where are the other 50 percent going to go?” Tom Bogdan, who has led the Montauk opposition to the airport’s closure, asked at Monday’s work shop. “For every one you stop from going to East Hampton, that one would be coming to Montauk.”

“The noise is horrible, nobody should have to go through it and I support helping them as much as we can,” he added. “But not at the expense of Montauk.”

Marcy Waterman, also a Montauk resident, said she isn’t even sure where the East Hampton Airport is and is not affected by the noise from its aircraft, but is very worried what a spike in traffic in Montauk would mean — from noise to car traffic down East Lake Drive and though downtown Montauk.

But Ms. Waterman also empathized with those who have decried the noise from the current airport and said that clearly something needed to be done to ease their suffering. She blamed aviation advocates for failing to negotiate a compromise long ago that could have headed off the ultimatums they are now facing.

“My view is that the status quo is completely unacceptable and I don’t understand why people don’t come to the table and agree on some very reasonable restrictions,” she said, harking to the lawsuits filed by aviation groups when the town tried to enact curfews and flight limits in 2015. “How do you negotiate with people who would rather go to court than compromise? The nature of compromise is that everybody has to be unhappy, or it wouldn’t be compromise.”

Even some of those representing the aviation community at the meetings acknowledged that the traffic patterns that have developed at the airport in the last decade — thousands of helicopter commuter flights from New York City, in particular — are not sustainable.

“We don’t want the status quo … we know that is unrealistic and unreasonable,” said Kathryn Slye, a local pilot and vice president of the pro-airport East Hampton Aviation Association. “We want to find solutions to help the noise affected and allow this community to still have the benefits of an airport.”

Ms. Slye said her group, which is made up of primarily recreational pilots who keep their small, private planes at KHTO, would be amenable to limits on the number of “operations” allowed at the airport, caps on the number of flights by helicopters and strict curfews.

Aviators also argued that they have been making inroads on reducing noise impacts through voluntary agreements that they think could be a better path forward than closure.

Bernadette Ruggerio, an employee of Sound Aviation, the company that provides most of the aircraft services at the airport, called the whole debate “nerve-racking” for her company’s employees.

Ms. Ruggerio said that much of the aviation industry is eagerly awaiting the rise of electric-powered aircraft, which are touted as much quieter and will be joining aircraft fleets over the next three to five years.

Ms. Ruggerio and pilot Brian LaBelle both noted that if KHTO is closed, the airspace around East Hampton would become “unregulated” allowing aircraft to follow any flight paths their pilots desired — a circumstance that would spread the noise impacts far and wide.

“Nobody wants airspace unregulated more than the commercial operators, because then it’s whatever shortest route they want to take,” Mr. LaBelle said.

Erin King Sweeney, an aviation attorney working as director of the East Hampton Community Alliance, a pilots’ advocacy group founded last year, said that the temporary closure consideration is fraught.

“If you close the airport [temporarily] with the idea that restrictions will follow, you’re going to have such massive litigation it will be frozen,” she said on Monday evening. “You will have the effect of closing the airport permanently.”

During Thursday’s discussions, Ms. Slye said that she has been told that the temporary “closure” can be an essentially conceptual one, worked out with FAA in advance so that it doesn’t have to result in an actual shuttering of the airport for any period of time in order to allow new agreed-upon restrictions to be put in place.

Wainscott resident Carolyn Logan Gluck said she was bothered by some aviation advocates’ attempts to minimize or dismiss the cries for relief from residents, but said she was bouyed by the discussions in the workshop as a having “tiptoed forward” on the path to compromise. But the onus, she said, remains on the airport’s users to pursue meaningful relief if they want to save the airport.

“Work to make that happen, for heavens sake,” she pleaded. “If we are successful in this, imagine what community building that would be.”

Ms. Slye agreed, to an extent, even while reiterating the claims that aviation advocates have often turned to in response to the closure proposals.

“Closure will not change the amount of noise, the number of helicopters flying overhead, or the emissions — it might even increase them,” she said. “There is a balance that can be found, but we have to work at it.”