By Ellen Frankman
The crusade over helicopter noise abatement rages on this month as residents of Noyac and Sag Harbor find themselves on deadline to express concerns over proposed efforts to improve helicopter noise.
Town officials and residents now have until June 25 to respond within the Federal Aviation Administration public comment period following Senator Charles Schumer’s May 28 announcement that a mandatory chopper route be imposed on the North Fork.
Under this new “Schumer Rule,” the northern route will begin at Execution Rock in the Western Long Island Sound, proceeding to Orient Point and then over Gardiner’s Bay. Deviations from this route are permitted, however, so that aircraft may reach Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, the Southampton Helipad and East Hampton Airport. Under the proposed rule all outbound flights from East Hampton Airport would fly over Noyac to Jessup’s Neck, and all flights would have a mandated minimum flight height of 2,500 feet.
An outpouring of citizen reactions to the rule abounded at the Noyac Civic Council’s meeting last Tuesday, where Matthew O’Brien, East Hampton Airport noise abatement officer, fielded questions on behalf of the airport. According to O’Brien, the airport took 3,500 complaints regarding helicopter noise in 2009, a number markedly lower than the previous year; but nevertheless significant. O’Brien explained that the original single route used by all helicopters over Rose’s Grove was eventually replaced due to complaints, resulting in the construction of two inbound and two outbound routes. The southern route over the ocean and Georgica Pond currently handles only 15 percent of flight traffic; however, it is a number the airport is hoping to increase to 50 percent.
“My boss and I agree that there should also be a mandatory route on the South Fork,” said O’Brien in response to the news of Schumer’s proposed mandatory northern route.
Such a jump in activity is not going to occur voluntarily, O’Brien admitted, since the southern Georgica Pond route is not the most direct path from Manhattan.
“It’s all about the almighty dollar right now,” he said. “More time is more fuel.”
O’Brien maintained that the East Hampton Airport is sympathetic to the complaints of local residents, but said complications in changing airport policy arise due to the fact that aid from the Airport Improvement Program Fund forces the East Hampton Airport to comply with all government regulations.
Noyac Civic Council members are determined to make their voices heard however. At Tuesday’s meeting a petition was passed around constructed by resident Bill O’Reilly, Noyac’s representative to the East Hampton Town Noise Abatement Committee, calling for a mandatory southern route, a minimum flight height of 3,000 feet, and the use of Orient Point as a waypoint so that helicopters remain over the water as long as possible.
NCC President Chuck Neuman, who believes the proposed routes under the “Schumer Rule” will “undo years of work by the Noise Abatement Committee” called for “urgent action” in an email to all members following the meeting. Neuman encouraged members to write personal letters to the FAA by the June 25 deadline, and also to make contact with their local representatives.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst, who attended the NCC meeting, shares many of the same opinions. Throne Holst explained that the most common complaints she is receiving regarding the rule as it stands concern the height requirement and the desire for a mandatory southern route. Though a finalized general opinion and recommendations for the FAA are still in the works, Throne Holst also expressed an interest in seeing the construction of a seasonal control tower at the East Hampton Airport, a project not feasible for this summer.
“A tower can immediately say, ‘you need to redirect yourself,’” said Throne Holst.
Throne Holst also agrees with the idea of a northern and southern route, and that a minimum flight requirement of 3,000 feet is better suited to the area, which is now densely populated. “Twenty-five-hundred feet doesn’t quite do the job. Noyac certainly is not farm fields anymore.”
NCC members sounded off on the issue, finding fault with the current “Schumer Rule” noting that helicopters don’t circle straight up when leaving the airport to reach 2500 feet after taking off. The choppers aren’t at this minimum height until they reach Jessup’s Neck, at which point they have already flown over – and disturbed – the entire neighborhood.
O’Brien responded to the criticism, saying that the airport recommends a circling ascent and descent, but that these rules cannot be enforced. Though he recognizes that a minimum height requirement of 2,500 feet does lessen the noise of helicopters, it is not a full solution.
“Does it make it go away? No,” he admitted to NCC members.
Ultimately, supervisor Throne Holst sees the current public comment period as a huge chance to bring about change. “It is really important for the town to come out united. This is a small window of opportunity for us to come out really strong,” she encouraged residents.
“This is an issue at the forefront. We have felt for a long time that they haven’t quite understood that,” said Throne Holst.