By Amanda Wyatt
As East Hampton Airport seeks to install a permanent, seasonal air traffic control tower, a number of East End residents are once again bringing the issue of airport noise to the forefront of that discussion.
Last Wednesday, roughly 60 residents turned out for a public hearing at the airport on an environmental assessment of the proposed control tower. And although the assessment does not cite noise as an area of concern, it was a high priority for many of the attendees.
According to Peter Byrne, senior airport planner at the Hauppauge-based firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., the hearing was part of a formal process under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Byrne gave the audience an overview of the 26-feet, four-inch tower, which would be functional for roughly 16 hours a day between May and September.
From an enclosed glass cab, air traffic controllers would use a high frequency radio to communicate with aircraft owners. The tower would also come equipped with “a steady burning, red obstruction light,” he added.
Nonetheless, the majority of commenters at the hearing aired their grievances not about the tower, but about noise pollution generated by the airport in general.
Airport noise has been an issue debated in East Hampton and beyond for years, but became increasingly controversial last summer, when one of two recommended helicopter flight paths was eliminated, rerouting all helicopter traffic over Jessup’s Neck in Noyac.
Residents of the hamlet, along with North Sea, Sag Harbor and other surrounding areas, have reported a major increase in noise as a result. For the last year, those residents have been joined by government officials like Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, Congressman Tim Bishop, Senator Charles Schumer, New York State Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., among others including members of civic organizations, in calling for a comprehensive strategy to address helicopter noise stemming from the airport before another busy summer season begins.
At the same time, the environmental assessment discussed at last Wednesday’s meeting does not include Noyac or the surrounding area as being one impacted by the control tower. Bridget Fleming, a Southampton Town councilwoman who serves as the liaison to Noyac, asked that the area of study be expanded to include these locales.
The study “does not note anything about the concomitant increase in noise over Noyac, North Sea and the Sag Harbor area,” said Fleming. “The presence of the tower has a very real impact on those areas and the areas that are outside the study area.”
For Kathleen Cunningham, chair of the Quiet Skies Coalition, the control tower “offers safety, but it also increases capacity.”
Patricia Currie, a fellow Quiet Skies member, said, “Increased capacity is noise.”
Theresa Caskey, who traveled from Mattituck on the North Fork to give her testimony, said planes on their way to East Hampton were waking her up early in the morning.
Tom MacNiven of Wainscott added that holding a hearing mid-week was a problem for many second homeowners in the area and that it had not been properly publicized.
For some residents, the hearing was a chance for some show-and-tell.
William Reilly of Sag Harbor held up a stack of notebooks that recorded the “hundreds” of times he had called to complain about noise over the years.
And Elena Loreto, president of the Noyac Civic Council, played a tape of helicopter noise she had recorded at her house last weekend.
“Welcome to my backyard,” she shouted over the sound of choppers. “This is my Saturday and Sunday.”
Noyac resident Gene Polito, on the other hand, questioned the accuracy of the environmental report.
“Apparently, the report you put together is flawed from top to bottom,” he said, adding “noise pollution is environmental. Air pollution is environmental. Everything related to the airport is environmental.”
Jeff Bragman of East Hampton, who called the control tower “a sales pitch by the airport lobby,” lambasted the fact that the hearing was moderated by “a couple of suits from Hauppauge.”
“This hearing is everything about why we need local control instead of FAA control,” he said, eliciting applause from the audience.
But Gerard Boles of East Hampton, an aircraft owner and president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, offered a different perspective.
“With the amount of traffic that we have in the summertime, the control tower proves to be beneficial,” he said.
While he said it was “not a panacea, it is not the solution,” he believed that “all in all, a control tower is positive, even for noise abatement.”
A draft of the environmental assessment is available on the Town of East Hampton’s website, www.town.east-hampton.ny.us. The airport will continue to accept written comments on the subject until 5 p.m. on May 13.