By Kathryn G. Menu
For the first time in three years, the Village of Sag Harbor received a handful of complaints and issued one citation about seaplanes landing, taking off or taxiing near village beaches. At the same time, according to one seaplane charter service, Sag Harbor has never been a more popular destination and may eventually evolve into becoming a second hub for seaplanes flying into East Hampton from New York City.
“It’s definitely been more of an issue this year,” said Sag Harbor Village Harbor Master Bob Bori in an interview last week.
Bori noted one of the reasons he believes seaplane traffic, and complaints, have risen is because one company – Fly the Whale – actually installed a mooring in a pop up mooring field just outside of the village’s jurisdiction.
While for the most part, Bori said seaplanes have complied with the village’s ordinances, — which prohibit landings and takeoffs in the harbor management zone, 1500 feet from most villages beaches — he added the increase in seaplane traffic does come with concerns from a harbor master’s perspective.
“Well, obviously, my biggest concern is safety,” said Bori. “One of the days, a seaplane came in and it was Sunday afternoon and the kids were sailing at the Breakwater Yacht Club. The seaplane was taxiing right next to the kids in these small sailboats. I know these pilots know what they are doing, but God forbid there was a mechanical issue or something.”
According to Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Thomas Fabiano, this year there have been four complaints logged with the police department through Bori about seaplanes. There were no complaints in either 2010 or 2011, said Chief Fabiano.
For Shaw Road resident John Parker, this summer has been unprecedented in the amount of seaplane traffic he has seen from his waterfront home. One afternoon, Parker and his wife, Joyce, were on their deck when a seaplane flew about 20 to 30 feet over his house, he said.
“We thought we were watching a plane crash,” Parker said. “It just barely cleared the tree in front of our house and landed right near where I moor my boat.”
From there, said Parker, the seaplane taxied to a yellow buoy, indicating a mooring set up in a mooring field outside of Sag Harbor’s jurisdiction, arranged by the seaplane charter company, Fly the Whale.
Parker stressed that while aviation traffic has been a controversial subject on the East End, he is not someone who is opposed to air traffic. Parker was a captain in the air force and a JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer.
“I just want people to be aware of this before there is an accident,” added Parker. “By the end of the summer, we were seeing two or three planes a day, easily.”
He suggested one solution could be designating a seaplane landing zone, far from local beaches and other boats, perhaps near Barcelona Neck in East Hampton – a quick launch service boat ride to Sag Harbor.
Melissa Tomkiel, with Fly the Whale, said her pilots consider safety a top priority and the company arranged the mooring in a different color – yellow – so it would be unique and easy to see from the air.
Having the mooring enabled the three-year-old company to land in Sag Harbor in the event of an emergency, like this summer’s plane crash, said Tomkiel, but also allows them to fly people to Sag Harbor from the East Hampton Airport.
“The reason we got a mooring this year is because there is an increase in demand for Sag Harbor, so we wanted some kind of infrastructure in place,” said Tomkiel. “Our two seaplane captains are Sag Harbor residents, and we maintain a positive relationship with the village launch service.”
Tomkiel added that Fly the Whale has not received any citations despite the complaints and that it is in the company’s best interest to operate safely.
Particularly since, if demand for Sag Harbor service continues, Fly the Whale may start offering direct service from Manhattan to the village using that mooring, Tomkiel said.
According to Sag Harbor Village attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr., outside of the harbor management area, where Fly the Whale has its mooring, Sag Harbor Village has no jurisdiction. Regardless, he said the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees will discuss the issue at its October 9 meeting at 6 p.m.