By Stephen J. Kotz
Members of East Hampton’s budget and financial advisory committee dropped a bit of a bombshell on Tuesday when they told the town board that the town would be able to continue operating the airport for the foreseeable future without accepting additional funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Whether the town could afford to maintain the facility without federal largesse has long been a bone of contention, with airport supporters saying the grants are needed to maintain the airport and opponents saying the town will not be able to control the facility as long as it continues accepting federal aid and the restrictions that come with it.
“Some people held the conclusion that the airport would fall apart if you did not take FAA money. This report disproves that,” said Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who nonetheless added he would not close the door on the possibility the town would need FAA funding in the future.
“Clearly, your financial analysis shows we can move forward at least in the immediate and interim future, that we can finance the airport, that we can keep it safe, and that we can make the improvements that are absolutely necessary and do that for some period of time without taking FAA money,” he said.
The report was presented to the board by Arthur Malman, the chairman of the budget advisory committee, and Peter Wadsworth, one of its authors, who told the board the airport will be able to generate enough cash flow to adequately cover its long term debt servicing needs.
Both men stressed that the group that worked on the report represented a cross-section of airport supporters and opponents and had reached their conclusion unanimously.
In compiling the report, the committee assumed varying scenarios, ranging from no changes in airport traffic to one in which there were no helicopter flights. They also assumed that the town could realize modest revenue growth by raising fees to offset expected increases in expenses.
The scenario is even more rosy, Mr. Wadsworth said, if the town takes advantage of a number of options to enhance revenue from the airport. Among the options the committee found beside raising landing fees and fuel charges include requiring paid parking, renegotiating hangar leases, possibly adding additional hangars, developing 15 vacant lots on Industrial Road as well as the potential for developing a massive solar farm on the northern end of the airport.
Mr. Malman added that the airport property encompasses some 600 acres, with much of it zoned for industrial uses, which is in high demand. He added, though, that any development schemes would require careful analysis by the town’s planning and natural resources departments.
He added that the town has the potential to turn the airport into a major source of revenue, when the last of the FAA grant restrictions expire in 2022. Because of those restrictions, any revenue raised at the airport must be spent there. But after they expire, the town would be able to use operating surpluses to reduce taxes.
“It may become a very significant source of nontax revenue,” he said. “The bad news is there has to be a little thought given as to how you set this thing up” to make sure the airport properly maintained.