By Karl Grossman
Suffolk Legislator Edward P. Romaine has drafted a bill under which Suffolk County would establish a minimum altitude at which helicopters could fly over Suffolk.
The measure is in response to widespread complaints over the last several years from Suffolk residents affected by the raucous noise of helicopters taking New Yorkers to and from eastern Long Island and what the bill describes as the failure of an agreement between Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop and helicopter operators “to alleviate the public nuisance”Â of chopper noise.
Generating the complaints has been helicopter traffic in and out of East Hampton Airport, the Southampton Village helipad, and the Suffolk County-owned Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.
However, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said that the federal government through the Federal Aviation Administration regulates helicopters and Suffolk County would be “pre-empted”Â from restricting the altitude at which they fly.
Over the winter, Senator Schumer and Representative Bishop met with helicopter operators and got their agreement to fly at 2,500 feet and stress going over bodies of water—the Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound—Â onÂ trips between New York City and Long Island.
The bill, which Romaine intends to introduce Tuesday at a meeting of the legislature, declares that “low-flying helicopters have become a public nuisance in Suffolk County” and the “recent agreement between public officials and helicopters has failed to alleviate the public nuisance.”
“The purpose of this law is to establish a minimum altitude for the operation of helicopters passing through the air boundaries of Suffolk County,” it states, “and to preserve and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the residents of Suffolk County without prohibiting the safe passage of helicopters.”
Under Romaine’s bill, it would be “unlawful to operate, or for the owner to permit the operation, of any type of helicopter over the legal limits of the County of Suffolk” which would be “below an altitude of 1,500 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet from the helicopter except when necessary for a take-off or landing or as weather conditions may dictate.”
Penalties would be a fine of up to $1,000 “and/or one year in prison per offense.”
Exempt from the law would be “helicopters used exclusively in the government service of the United States of America, the State of New York, or any municipal corporation of the state”—which would cover police helicopters—and also “helicopters being used exclusively for agricultural operations.”
In an interview, Mr. Romaine said he “went to all those meetings with Schumer and Bishop” and was told, “We got it, buddy. It’s going to be taken care of with the informal plan.”
In fact, he said, the racket of helicopter noise continues. “The voluntary plan is not working,”Â said Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches whose district includes the North Fork, Shelter Island and a piece of Brookhaven Town.
As to the federal government pre-empting a county in setting minimum altitude for helicopters, “we’re not pre-empted. The FAA does not regulate helicopters.”
“The problem has to be solved,” said Mr. Romaine Thursday. He said he expects his resolution will “get peoples’ attention” and that “the FAA should step in and require helicopter operators to file flight plans and adhere to minimum altitude requirements.”
Chris Dancy, media relations director of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said in an interview Monday that “the federal government does regulate helicopters.” Choppers are referred to as “rotary wing aircraft” in FAA regulations, he said. “The FAA is responsible for anything that takes place above the ground and Congress has pre-emptedÂ local jurisdiction and designated the FAA as the agency responsible for aviation activity,”Â said Mr. Dancy.
Gene Polito of Noyac, who has been crusading against the helicopter noise, agreed that the deal worked out between Senator Schumer and Representative Bishop and the helicopter operators has not worked out. “Yesterday, I counted 68 flights over my house including helicopters flying as low as 900 feet,” he said Sunday. But, he said, a minimum altitude of 1,500 feet is “totally useless—it doesn’t do a thing. It would be no better than 900 feet.”
Helicopters need to fly at 3,000 feet to not disturb people on the ground with noise, said Mr. Polito, citing “the recommendations of helicopter manufacturers themselves that when flying over ‘sensitive areas’ they should fly at 3,000 feet.”
William Reilly of Noyac, also involved in challenging helicopter noise, said the Schumer-Bishop-helicopter operator agreementÂ has not solved the helicopter noise problem. “Too some extent it has worked in that a number of pilots are flying higher, but there is still a significant number that are violating it,” said Mr. Reilly. He was also was not happy with the 1,500-foot limit. “This will not help at all,”Â said Mr. Reilly.Â