The Southampton High School teacher, Wainscott resident and co-founder of the Quiet Skies Coalition talks about how the growth of the East Hampton Airport poses an environmental danger, destroys quality of life and why it is critical East Hampton take back control of its airport from the Federal Aviation Administration.
How did the Quiet Skies Coalition evolve from a group of concerned residents into a large not-for-profit reaching hundreds on the South Fork?
It was really an effort to bring together some of the key people who over the years have been dealing directly with the issues at the airport in an attempt to unify everyone. It evolved from the roots of a lot of other efforts. I was the new kid on the block, in terms of dealing directly with these issues, but a group of us had a conversation, saw there was interest and need for a group like this to form and reconstitute the effort. I think what galvanized us is the obvious fact that traffic at the airport over the last couple of summers has gotten marketedly worse.
As you mentioned, for many years now residents in East Hampton and Southampton have complained about the impact the airport has had on their lives and have organized to have their voices heard. What makes the Quiet Skies Coalition different from previous efforts?
I think we are trying to cast this as more than just a noise issue, and an issue that affects people outside of close proximity to the airport. I see this as the seminal environmental issue of this era and I come from a long line of environmentalists. My parents, Audrey and Charles Raebeck, were some of the founders of the Group for the South Fork in the 1970s. Everything was for sale, up for development, and people like them, and me, got directly involved and said this is not what we want, this is not the East End, and we don’t want to lose what makes this place so special.
What we are asking now is, who decided to make the East Hampton Airport — which was designed and had always been a small recreational airport — into a commercial hub? And how dare they. It is in direct violation of the town’s comprehensive plan. No environmental review of the airport has been done, no one is monitoring emissions, the impact on groundwater, whether or not there have been spills.
The argument that we want to close the airport is not true — no one has ever said that. What we are saying is we want to return the airport to normal use, unless we as a town decide we want a major heliport.
What has been your personal experience with the airport?
I first came here in 1957, left in the 1970s and came back in 1994 looking for a place to build a house. We came back with three young daughters and worked with a local realtor, Bob Casper, who found us this great spot. I said to him, “But this is on the airport road” and he said, “You will see, the airport has no impact and you are not on the flight path.” And he was right, for 16 years. Three things have happened since then. First, two summers ago they moved the helicopter flight path directly over our house. The helicopters were coming in over the power lines, but there got to be so many of them, they had to bring them in another way. First they brought them in over Northwest Harbor, but the Northwest Alliance began to complain so they shifted that route west. There are days in the summer where they are coming over our house every two minutes for hours, and I live miles from the airport.
The other issue is the seaplanes, which is a new development. At times they come literally 200-feet over my house. Before this summer, no airplane had ever flown over our house before except for maybe a single engine plane. There we were, having dinner on our porch and a seaplane came sailing in, just above our treetops. It was scary. We are seeing jets now too.
My house was not impacted at all until two years ago and now, I might as well be living in Rosedale, Queens which is right next to JFK airport.
Outside of your personal concerns, what are some of the other concerns of the Quiet Skies Coalition?
My biggest concern, and it is not at all personal, is the solution they have come up with which will fly helicopters over Georgica Pond. The town has said this will “spread it around,” but it will impact a lot more people negatively. As the airport continues to expand — it’s the new thing for New York City big shots to take a chopper or seaplane out here, sometimes an aircraft carrying one person — what we will see as the use of the airport increases is routes spread across the region. There is no telling what kind of impact that will have on people in all parts of the town, as well as people who live in Southampton, Noyac and even the North Fork.
Another concern, which no one seems to want to address including many of our local environmental groups like Group for the East End, is the environmental impact of the airport. Aircraft are huge polluters in an age where we are talking about the importance of reducing our carbon footprint. There are reams of data out there about how the jet fuel emissions deplete the ozone layer and how they can pollute our area. Obviously noise is an issue, but it isn’t the only kind of pollution being generated at the airport.
We have seen the new airport layout plan, which has already been given preliminary approval from the FAA, and it includes expanded taxiways, new buildings, an expanded perimeter, changes in the road. It is a very dramatic expansion of the airport that includes repaving a runway that has fallen into disrepair and making it usable. It will allow, as will the trailer they are bringing in — it is being called a control tower, but it is a trailer — traffic to increase at the airport.
What is behind this need to expand, in your view?
The real issue here, as far as I can tell, is people who use the airport on a regular basis or make money off the airport want to have improvements made at the airport without having to pay for it. If they had to float a $4.6 million bond for the airport, everyone would know exactly what we are talking about, so instead they take FAA money. Our feeling is that should not be necessary because they already have $1.5 million in airport reserves.
On Thursday night, the town will host a public hearing on whether or not it should take more funding from the FAA, a move criticized by your organization. If the town does not take FAA money, what do you believe the town will be able to control at the airport come 2014 when some of East Hampton’s grant assurances with the FAA expire?
This is based on legal and municipal precedents from all over the country. One, the town would be able to set a curfew at the airport. They would also be able to regulate what types of aircraft can come into the airport. For example, helicopters are considered a type two aircraft. The town could decide not to allow type two aircraft to land at the airport. I am not sure why the local pilots would be against that. The helicopters are dangerous and in their way. So we can ban helicopters, we can set a curfew and we can also limit the number of aircraft that land at the airport in a day, a week, a year. The town could also be more radical with fines for aircraft coming in at low altitudes. These are big controls we could have in place. If we have the FAA out of here, the town can sit down, ask residents what we want for our airport, but the way things are now, it is a free for all.
Look, some people on our side of this issue have devoted literally 15 years of their lives to this and they have no other motive other than peace of mind. This is costing us a lot of time, and a lot of money. Think about who has the incentive here and who is working for the public good — commercial interests or the Quiet Skies Coalition. We are the ones wearing the white hats here.
For more information on the Quiet Skies Coalition visit http://quietskiescoalition.org. The East Hampton Town Board’s public hearing on whether or not to take funding from the FAA for the construction of a deer fence will take place on Thursday, December 1 at 7 p.m. in town hall.