Sag Harbor Resident Bob Malafronte was one of dozens to address the town board during a special meeting on Wednesday, August 27. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Mara Certic
Nearly 400 people from across the East End showed up for a special meeting on August 27 to voice their concerns and complaints about the East Hampton Airport.
For almost three hours, residents from East Hampton, Southampton, Noyac, North Haven, Shelter Island and the North Fork told the board how the increased air traffic at the 570-acre airport has affected their lives.
Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who acts as the board’s airport liaison, made a statement before the public hearing began. She assured the public the town board was committed to do everything it can do to address the problem. “The town board is absolutely committed to addressing the noise problem and finding a lawful solution,” she said.
She also asked those who had signed up to speak to stay respectful of each other, and the board, asking “I request everyone observe basic rules of civility.”
Ms. Burke-Gonzalez’s wish came true. There was a sense of support and unity among the residents and elected officials who gathered to speak.
Governments in Southold, Southampton, Shelter Island, North Haven and Noyac all passed resolutions in recent weeks calling for the East Hampton Town Board to refuse any future grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration and then impose regulations on the airport.
“We implore you to not re-up the funding from the FAA,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst at the meeting.
Obligations related to three of the 39 FAA grants will expire on December 31, 2014. One of the obligations has to do with “access,” which many believe means that the town will be able to gain control and regulate the airport. As Ms. Burke-Gonzalez explained “We are committed to carefully considering the consequences of taking grants on our ability to control the problem of airport noise and on our ability to serve the needs of the East End communities.”
She added, “there is a fine line between our power as a town and the power of the federal government. And I can assure you that we intend to exercise our town authority within the limits of the law.” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said that certain limits apply, “regardless of whether the town ever again takes federal grant funds.”
Although many supporters of increasing regulations for aircraft—particularly helicopters—said they are at the end of their ropes, their battle has no ending yet in sight. “Before we can direct a solution, we have to collect data about where and when the problem is worst, and what actions we can take,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said.
Earlier that day, members of the FAA met with East End town supervisors. Although they seemed thankful for a chance to speak with FAA administrators, some local officials were less than impressed with their response. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he was not satisfied with what the FAA had to say, but added it became clear that “With the issue of what can we do as a grant-obligated facility, the answer was ‘not much.’ When the question was asked, ‘What can we do as a non-grant-obligated facility, the answer was ‘Perhaps you can do this, perhaps you can do that.’”
It remains somewhat unclear the town board actually can do. East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell on Thursday said he was not yet willing to comment on the next steps the board will be taking. The town has hired an independent noise expert to analyze data, and he said that he expects the board to have that information within the next two months.
In her opening statement, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said the town “will outline in great detail the process we will use and our timetable for adopting appropriate rules to address the noise problem.” Supervisor Cantwell said to “stay tuned.”
Many speakers at last week’s meeting, and previous airport-related hearings, have mentioned the possibility that airport and helicopters would file suit against the town.
Ms. Throne-Holst made reference to the threat of a suit in her remarks to the town board, and said the FAA should understand “when the opposition, if you will, is lawyering up here and moneying up here, we on the local level should not have to deal with the cost of meeting lawsuits like that. That just isn’t right. There has to be a model where we’re protected by that.”
“I can just tell you that from a North Haven standpoint, we’ll do everything to try and support you,” said North Haven Village Mayor Jeff Sander. This feeling was repeated throughout the evening by residents as well as elected officials.
“We’re behind you 100 percent,” said Shelter Island resident Jim Colligan. “Don’t be in fear of those helicopter companies, if we need to rally behind you, we will definitely rally behind you.”
Many speakers expressed concern about non-stop noise, which they say begins as early as 5 a.m. and lasts as late as 2:45 a.m. Frank Dalene, who lives near the airport, likened the endless noise to torture. “Will there be satisfaction if you just stop the torture?” he asked. “The only relief is to stop torture. We will not be satisfied until helicopters stop.”
Mr. Dalene is an appointed member of the town’s airport budget and finance subcommittee, which earlier this year determined the airport would still be financially sustainable if helicopters were banned.
As well as noise, many brought up issues of health and safety. A specialist in animal behaviorism and a Northwest resident explained that the “looming” sound of the helicopters has harmed wildlife on the East End, and could be harming people, too.
Another worry among East Enders is the decreased real estate value caused by the incessant noise.
Ms. Throne-Holst said the FAA tried to explain the economic models they have used to determine how to regulate helicopters. She and the other supervisors tried to convince them, “This may be an economic model that they’ve never seen before. I don’t know that they have ever had to calculate what the effect might be on property values and how that then trickles down to the effect on businesses,” she said.