By Kathryn G. Menu
In an effort to reduce noise and increase safety, East Hampton Town is moving forward with plans to install a seasonal air traffic control tower at East Hampton Airport this summer.
However, while the town is making headway in that arena, a debate over whether or not it should continue to accept Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant monies came to a head last week. That’s because the town board stalled in passing a resolution to allow it to seek three new grants from the FAA for capital improvements.
During a town board work session on Tuesday, March 20 the generally united Republican majority on the board failed to come together to pass a resolution proposed by airport liaison, Councilman Dominick Stanzione.
Stanzione hoped to gain approval to apply for new grant applications to the FAA to repair the closed 4-22 runway, for the construction of a perimeter deer fence and for capital improvements at the airport. But he failed to gain the support of Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Deputy Supervisor Theresa Quigley.
Supervisor Wilkinson said he would like to consult with the town’s aviation attorney, Peter Kirsch, in light of a memo from the FAA to Congressman Tim Bishop. The memo outlined the ability of the town to impose restrictions at the airport once some of its existing grant contracts with the FAA expire in 2014.
Democratic town board members, Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, have long supported stalling any new FAA grants while the effectiveness of the control tower and other noise abatement programs are assessed.
Stanzione, who has been working with Kirsch and the FAA to create a noise abatement plan, was able to secure approval to contract with three different firms that will assess the airport in different ways.
According to Stanzione, the town board has agreed to contract with Plane Noise and AirScene, companies that will monitor noise complaints and correspond those with arriving and departing aircrafts to compile data on noise stemming from the airport.
Vector Solutions was also hired by the board to create an automated billing system for airport users, which will not only create a more professional cash management system, said Stanzione, but will enable the town to track airport use.
Lastly, the town also agreed to hire Robinson Aviation to operate the seasonal control tower at East Hampton Airport at a cost of $342,600 a year.
The air traffic control tower still needs FAA approval, noted Stanzione. However, earlier this month, the agency took a step towards that reality when it published a formal notice in the Federal Register regarding the re-designation of the airport.
According to the notice, in the summer season the East Hampton Airport would be designated a Class D Airport. That will create a more restrictive airspace in a five-mile radius around the airport and require a minimum altitude of 2,500-feet for aircraft.
The airport would revert back to a Class E designation during the off-season. Comments on the FAA’s proposal are being accepted through this Friday, April 30.
“The control tower is about addressing safety and noise,” said Stanzione. “Traffic creates noise and if we can manage the altitudes of aircraft using the airport it is expected this will have a significant impact in terms of noise mitigation.”
In terms of whether or not to accept FAA funding for capital improvements, Stanzione said he remains persuaded that the town can continue to accept funding and still have control.
“Mainly, I support our FAA policy of pursuing grant funding while implementing a 43-point noise mitigation plan that down the line includes airport restrictions, but provides for the safest, most financially feasible and quickest path to providing for local control over the airport,” said Stanzione.
Members of the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion and the Quiet Skies Coalition have urged the current town board to rescind that resolution. The fear, according to Quiet Skies Coalition chairwoman Kathy Cunningham, is, if the grant goes through, the town will have an additional 20-years before it can place restrictions like curfews or prohibit certain aircraft from landing at the airport.
The Committee to Stop Airport Expansion has filed suit to prevent the town from accepting new funding. Earlier this month, its request for a temporary restraining order was rejected in court for a third time, although an application for a preliminary injunction remains on the table.
On Wednesday, Cunningham said she believes the FAA memo to Bishop demonstrates that the town will be able to enact “reasonable airport regulations” come December 2014 when some grant restrictions expires.
Cunningham noted that creating a noise abatement plan for the airport — termed a “Part 161” — has been upheld in only one community, Naples, Florida, and it was litigated.
“And now we have answers from the FAA,” said Cunningham. “They are saying that in no uncertain terms they will not take action against the town once the grant assurances expire in 2014.”
Cunningham said that state case law backs up that position, pointing to a legal dispute between a helicopter organization and the City of New York, which restricted helicopters and, not being bound by an FAA contract, won the right to keep those restrictions.
“We are not trying to shut down the airport,” Cunningham stressed. “But we have to deal with these very real issues affecting our quality of life.”