Sag Harbor resident John Parker spent much of the summer on the porch of his Shaw Road residence watching seaplanes fly in and out of Sag Harbor. One company docked its plane at a mooring just beyond Sag Harbor controlled waters east of Havens Beach.
While seaplanes have always been a part of Sag Harbor’s nautical vistas, said Parker at a Sag Harbor Village Board meeting on Tuesday night, the number of planes landing just beyond bathing beach waters and near other vessels increased dramatically this summer. Before next summer, Parker said he hopes the Sag Harbor Village Board will begin to educate pilots and seaplane companies about where it is legal to takeoff, land and taxi away from the village’s harbor management area, in an effort to protect swimmers and boaters.
Parker also suggested the board explore exacting strict fines on those seaplane pilots who come within 1,500 feet of village beaches and consider working with companies to develop an area safer for landings and takeoffs closer to Barcelona Neck in East Hampton.
“Several years ago we might have seen a landing here or there, where by the end of this summer we were seeing two or three landings a day,” said Parker, a former captain in the air force and JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer.
Parker said his concerns stem primarily from instances where he says he witnessed, on a regular basis, seaplanes traversing within the harbor management area, a 1500 foot section of water controlled by Sag Harbor Village where seaplanes are prohibited from landing or taking off. In one instance, said Parker, a seaplane came less than 50 feet over his house to land near his own mooring, about 400-feet from the beach.
“We thought it was crashing,” he said. “We all ducked. Even my dog ducked and he doesn’t duck much.”
Of greater concern is the reality that in order to cite a pilot for this kind of action, police or Harbor Master Bob Bori have to catch him or her in the act — a difficult feat with the whole waterfront to watch during busy summer months and because the offense is largely over by the time it is reported.
“It took a seaplane being stuck in order for it to be there when officers arrived and give them a citation,” said Parker.
Bori is more than aware of the increase in seaplane activity this summer. He has personally suggested it would be in the village’s best interest to attempt to broker some kind of agreement with pilots to land and takeoffs much further from village waters than they currently do, ideally by Barcelona Neck in East Hampton.
Currently one seaplane company, Fly the Whale, has a bright yellow mooring it uses for landings. One resident, using GPS, measured the distance from the shore to the mooring and said it was just over 1,500 feet from shore. That’s legal by village standards, but still close to shore and near a mooring field that is created in unregulated waters for boats each summer season.
This summer, 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.
Parker said after failing to find an accurate map to share with pilots about where they are restricted from landing their seaplanes, he believes the village should proactively provide those details to pilots, as well as post a copy of the map at East Hampton Airport, where many flights are originating.
He also suggested setting up a buoy system to designate the harbor management area.
Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride agreed.
“If there are some markings we have to do we should probably look into that for next year,” he said.
As for the mooring field, Gilbride said the village’s hands were tied. The bottomlands belong to either the East Hampton Town Trustees or the state, said village attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr.
Thiele added the village could not dictate where planes fly as that would fall under the jurisdiction of Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
“But I think we should think about ways to try and deal with this on the enforcement side,” said Thiele.
Quiet Skies Coalition Chairwoman Kathy Cunningham said the village should consider increasing its fines for violators.
“It is the only thing that will discourage people, especially if you have a hard time catching people in the act,” she said. “That is what you can control — your fee schedule and where they land in your jurisdiction.”