By Amanda Wyatt
As hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and other jetsetters drove up to East Hampton airport to catch their Sunday afternoon flights, they couldn’t help but notice nearly three dozen disgruntled East End residents demonstrating outside.
Carrying signs that read “Noyac Fed Up with Noise!” and “Stop the Choppers Now!” the protesters—many of whom hailed from Noyac — gathered at the airport on Sunday, August 19 to rally against the recent increase in noise from helicopters and other aircrafts.
While tensions have been brewing for years, for many Noyac residents it hit a boiling point this July when helicopters were reportedly redirected to take a single, northern flight path over parts of Noyac, Sag Harbor, North Sea and Bridgehampton on their way to and from the airport.
At the protest, Kathy Cunningham, chair of the Quiet Skies Coalition (QSC), asserted that the route change had been “made in a very whimsical way.”
“It took helicopters off the northwest route and sent all of them that approach the airport from the north over Jessup’s Neck,” said Cunningham. “It’s the shortest distance between two points for pilots that are landing here, so it’s considered by them faster and more economical.”
The August 19 protest was not an isolated incident. In a little over a week, a number of other measures have been taken to halt what upset residents call “unbearable” aircraft noise.
Among these efforts is a special forum slated for 7 p.m. this Thursday, August 23 at the Bridgehampton Community Center. The Noyac Civic Council (NCC) has confirmed that CongressmanTim Bishop will be in attendance, and they have invited a number of other politicians and airport officials.
This will be the second emergency meeting held by the NCC in two weeks. On August 15, about 50 people from across the East End squeezed into the Old Noyac Schoolhouse for a special forum.
Architect Barry Holden, one of the leaders of the meeting, has also been circulated a petition. The petition, which is at http://signon.org/sign/helicopter-noise-problem, demands action from the Town of East Hampton and airport managers to ameliorate the problem. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 269 signatures.
“The airport is in East Hampton, and yet our township is allowing all the noise and all the traffic to come over us,” Holden said. “The last couple of weeks, the traffic has been unbelievable. It has been going both directions. We’ve had helicopters so close you could see the bolts of their undercarriage.”
East Hampton Deputy Supervisor Theresa K. Quigley and Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming were present at the emotionally charged forum.
When Quigley spoke, she was received with angry shouting from several audience members. NCC President Elena Loreto kept order with a makeshift gavel, trying to quiet the rowdy crowd.
“On behalf of East Hampton, I apologize for the changes that have happened,” said Quigley. “I am as upset as you are.”
She encouraged residents to call the town’s noise abatement hotline, (631) 537-LOUD. Data collected from the hotline between June and September will be sent to an outside consulting firm, which will analyze the numbers and determine what steps the airport should take in terms of noise reduction, said Quigley.
However, a number of residents lamented that the hotline was often busy, and that it did not accurately reflect the extent of people affected by airport noise. In fact, East Hampton Town Councilman Dominic Stanzione, the airport liaison, told Fleming that the noise complaints were coming from a few houses.
“I know it’s a pain, but I would encourage you to continue to making complaints,” said Fleming, adding: “My view is that [Stanzione] was a little bit dismissive of what that data was showing.”
At the meeting, Noyac resident John Kirrane suggested staging protests at the airport. He, along with QSC’s Patricia Currie and six others gathered at the airport two days later.
During the rally, several protesters expressed concern over what they believed was a near-collision between two helicopters on August 16.
“There was a near-miss between two helicopters 24 hours ago over Jessup’s Neck between two commuter helicopters,” reported Currie.
However, when airport manager James Brundige looked in his tracking system, there was no indication that a near-miss had occurred.
“I could not find any evidence that that had happened,” he said in a separate interview. “From the ground, it could have looked dangerous.”
“People get the wrong impression of what an airport manager does,” added Brundige. “They think I’m a policeman. I don’t control the airspace.”
While Brundige said that he was willing to have his office work with the East Hampton Town Board, he emphasized that he does not “have any authority.”
At each meeting and protest, airport noise was repeatedly raised as an economic issue. Many people were concerned about the real estate value of their houses declining due to noise. Merle Buff, a realtor, reported she had already started losing deals due to the change in the flight path.
“East Hampton takes in revenue, and Southampton’s cleaning up the mess,” Kirrane said.
However, a number of individuals noted that the airport serves an important economic function for the East End, as a whole. According to Michael Norbeck, a Sag Harbor resident and manager of Sound Aircraft Service, there are 75 full time employees at the airport.
“One of the positive points to the airport is that it brings a ton of money into the economy,” pointed out Norbeck.
At Friday’s protest, one man who had just flown in from Manhattan watched the rally as he waited for a car service. The passenger — who asked for anonymity — said that he flies “constantly” and “all over the world.”
“It’s a convenience,” he explained.
To get to East Hampton from Manhattan by plane, he said, it takes a mere 45 minutes.
“And I understand [the protesters’] concerns and I’m sympathetic,” he said. “But frankly, flying is a way of life.”