By Kathryn G. Menu
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. rendered a decision Friday that denied Helicopter Association International, Inc.’s petition to overturn a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ruling last summer requiring pilots to fly a mile off the North Shore of Long Island – a decision lauded by local officials and the not-for-profit Quiet Skies Coalition (QSC).
In 2010, a North Shore route was proposed by the FAA in response to complaints about helicopter noise. The FAA determined that “slightly more than a third of the total number of commenters complained about the levels of helicopter noise that they are exposed to, particularly during the summer months,” and issued the final rule in 2012.
In the ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals said it is the FAA’s mandate to protect individuals and property on the ground as well as the air and further stated that noise is an actionable offense as it can impact the ability for someone to enjoy their property.
On Sunday, East Hampton Town Councilman Dominick Stanzione praised the decision as one that shows noise abatement in East Hampton is being taken seriously.
“The landmark decision with national implications handed down on Friday by the United States Court of Appeals in Washington against the country’s leading commercial helicopter association is very good news for the Town of East Hampton’s efforts to regulate helicopter noise at the East Hampton Airport,” he said. “The helicopter association argued unsuccessfully the FAA had exceeded its authority by imposing restrictions on helicopters flying to-and-from East Hampton Airport and other airports on Long Island. The court upheld and strengthened the powers of the FAA.”
As a result of the ruling, Stanzione argued the best chance for the town to regulate helicopters at the East Hampton Airport is to continue to press the FAA to implement an Atlantic Ocean route into the airport and continue to work with the FAA “cooperatively,” said Stanzione, for approval of additional noise control measures at the airport the town could implement.
“These could include mandatory curfews and access limitations,” he said
“I believe that by working with the FAA now, when the town’s on-going noise studies are properly completed and submitted to the FAA, East Hampton’s noise regulations, if reasonable, are more likely to be upheld by the FAA,” said Stanzione. “Moreover, an Atlantic route is, I believe, more likely to be approved by the FAA as an addition to the existing Long Island Northern Route. A two-route FAA system has been recommended by the town for several years.”
Stanzione also said he believes accepting FAA funding – something many residents advocating for airport restrictions have urged the town not to do – would actually strengthen the alliance between East Hampton and the FAA.
“Accepting FAA funds, as is done by virtually every paved airport in the nation, would actually strengthen the recently reestablished alliance between East Hampton and the FAA and encourage the FAA to continue its effort to get control of what the U.S. Court of Appeals has now validated as the FAA’s proper finding — of an ‘unbearable . . . impact’ of helicopter over-flights on the quality of life of people on the ground.”
“Whether the FAA had the legal authority to protect the public from helicopter noise had long been a bone of contention,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. “Some argued that the FAA would need additional Congressional Authority to mandate helicopter routes on the basis of noise mitigation. With this federal appeals court decision we now know that the FAA already possesses that authority. It is a major victory for the public.”
“Now that the court has established the FAA’s legal authority to protect the public from helicopter noise, it is time for the FAA to provide the same protection to the South Shore as the North Shore by approving a mandatory Atlantic Route,” said Thiele, noting in October of 2012, 19 elected officials led by himself, Congressman Tim Bishop and New York State Senator Ken LaValle, renewed the call for the establishment of that route.
To date, no action has been taken on that request.
“The Federal Court ruling does not bring relief for the North Fork communities affected by helicopter noise,” said Jeff Smith from the Eastern Region Helicopter Council. “Instead, residents in Mattituck, Cutchogue, Southold and Peconic will be permanently subjected to helicopter overflights in a concentrated flight path since operators are required to follow the FAA mandated route. For years, the Eastern Region Helicopter Council has encouraged its members to fly a more diversified route, advocating for some flights over the North Shore, some over the South Shore and some over the center of Long Island. The better solution is clear—varying flight paths would give the same communities a dramatic decrease in helicopter noise.”
Kathleen Cunningham, the chairwoman of QSC, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to giving residents across the Twin Forks relief from airport noise, applauded the ruling in an interview on Wednesday. Cunningham said the ruling validated those residents who have continued to lodge noise complaints through the town hotline, despite the feeling they are not being heard.
“The most significant part of this ruling,” said Cunningham, “is that the court upheld the FAA’s right to make a decision like this based on noise complaints. It doesn’t help us too much on the East End in the short-term, but in the long-run it demonstrates that noise complaints are affecting FAA action.”
Cunningham scoffed at any suggestion the ruling justifies the town continuing to accept FAA funding, which QSC members have advocated would prevent the town from implementing real noise abatement controls like curfews and aircraft limitations at the airport.
“That is completely irrelevant to this ruling,” she said. “The ruling happened in a court of appeals and had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the town should take FAA funding. The Helicopter Association International challenged the FAA’s right to mandate a route based on noise abatement – that is the groundbreaking aspect of this ruling. The court is saying the FAA’s role is not just one of safety for the flying public, but also for the safety of people on the ground and in the protection of their property. That is the big win in this case.”