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Law Would Fine Copter Flights Below 2500-feet

Posted on 19 September 2008

By Karl Grossman

A two-part public hearing on a bill authored by Suffolk Legislator Edward Romaine that would restrict helicopters to cruising at no less than 2,500 feet over Suffolk County was closed this week and a vote on the measure could come next month.

 “The exaggerants are just exaggerating,” insisted Peter Borneman, a helicopter pilot from Ronkonkoma, at the hearing Tuesday in Hauppauge which followed a session last month in Riverhead. He told of having choppers from Long Island MacArthur Airport, near him, fly over his house as low as 500 feet high “and none of the windows rattled. It’s really not a quality-of-life issue.” Those complaining about helicopter noise “probably need contractors” to work on their houses, he said. Mr. Borneman said that Mr. Romaine’s bill “should be done away with.”

On the other side, Gene Polito of Noyac  charged that the helicopter operators were “imposing their business ambitions on thousands of people” on the ground and they “operate with seemingly no oversight.” Long Islanders are being subject to “blatant abuse. When will the will of the people be put first?” he asked. He complained that East Hampton Airport—the main destination for choppers taking travelers to and from Manhattan—has altered its “noise complaint line” to specify that the caller “identify” the helicopter being complained about. “Can this be an effort to diminish helicopter complaints?” He said that “no fly zones have been established in sensitive areas. Why not here?” Mr. Polito said: “I applaud Legislator Romaine’s bill.”

Mr. Romaine, after the legislative vote to officially “close” the hearing Tuesday, said that now his bill can go before the legislature’s Public Works and Transportation Committee for a vote. If a committee majority approves it, a vote on the measure by the full legislature could come, he said, when it next meets, October 14.

Mr. Romaine has revised his bill in recent weeks by changing its focus to prohibiting “careless and reckless operation” of choppers and stating that their cruising at less than 2,500 feet is “careless and reckless operation.” This was in large part an effort to deal with the claim that Suffolk is pre-empted by the federal government from imposing regulations on helicopters or any aircraft.

The revision came after Bill Faulk, Mr. Romaine’s legislative aide, conducted research on restrictions on aircraft operations around the nation and found, said Mr. Faulk, “a dozen states have statutes regarding careless and reckless operation of aircraft.” Also, he found that the City of New York has enacted rules that include a minimum altitude for choppers. 

The proposed law was re-titled “A Local Law to Ensure Safe Operations of Helicopters” and to state that “the operation of helicopters below 2,500 feet is presumed to be a hazard to persons and property on the surface and constitute careless and reckless operation.” It goes on to declare that “other municipalities, including the City of New York, have established minimum altitudes for helicopter operations within their jurisdictions. Therefore, the purpose of this law is to ensure safe operation of helicopters passing through the air boundaries of Suffolk County and to preserve and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the residents of Suffolk County without prohibiting safe passage of helicopters.”

Maintaining repeatedly that Suffolk County is pre-empted by the federal government from regulating helicopters has been the Eastern Region Helicopter Council and its representative, Robert Grotell. At the earlier hearing he told the legislators bluntly that regulating chopper operations “is out of your jurisdiction.”

At this week’s hearing, Mr. Grotell stressed what he said was compliance by most helicopter operators with an agreement on altitude and routing reached earlier this year between U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, Representative Tim Bishop and his organization.

Mr. Grotell also said that helicopter traffic has been down by 11 percent this year at East Hampton Airport, up 10 per cent at Suffolk County’s Francis Gabreski Airport, both compared to traffic last year, and down 50 percent at the Southampton Village helipad as compared to two years ago.

Mr. Romaine, of Center Moriches, engaged in a dialogue with Mr. Grotell at the hearing over Mr. Grotell’s reference to the group’s monitoring of the altitude and routing of choppers and finding the agreement with Senator Schumer and Mr. Bishop largely being adhered to. Mr. Romaine pressed him on how the altitude of the helicopters has been determined. Mr. Grotell said this was through on-board systems on more than 50 percent of choppers which signal their altitude.

“Some say altitude is unenforceable,” commented Mr. Romaine, speaking of determining how high choppers are flying. “You’ve just proven that it’s not.”

Also at the hearing, Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher of East Setauket, a co-sponsor of the Romaine bill, said that the measure has “led to a good meeting” recently with “representatives of Senator Schumer and Congressman Bishop” at which “we made progress” at further varying chopper routes including “reducing North Fork” traffic. As part of the Schumer-Bishop agreement with the helicopter operators, a substantial amount of what had been South Fork traffic was routed to fly over northern Brookhaven Town, the North Fork and Shelter Island and then to East Hampton Airport.

The Romaine bill states that “low flying helicopters have become a public nuisance in Suffolk County and threaten life or property of its residents” and that “the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to regulate the operations of helicopters.”

It provides penalties for cruising below 2,500 feet of “a fine of up to $1,000 and/or one year in prison per offense.”

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