By Annette Hinkle
If a reminder was needed on the topic of discussion at Tuesday’s Noyac Civic Council meeting, it flew overhead in the form of a helicopter just as things were getting underway.
The meeting, held at the Bridgehampton Community Center, was about aircraft — particularly low-flying helicopters using East Hampton Airport on a route that takes them right over Jessup’s Neck and Noyac. In response to residents’ pleas for relief, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and Councilwoman Christine Preston Scalera spearheaded two meetings in recent weeks to explore what can be done to mitigate helicopter noise.
The first meeting, on September 17 at Southampton Town Hall, was attended by Throne-Holst, Scalera, Congressman Tim Bishop, Assemblyman Fred Thiele and Kathy Cunningham, chair of the East Hampton non-profit Quiet Skies Coalition. According to Throne-Holst, with no members of the East Hampton Town Board, the pilots association or the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) present, the meeting was used to develop discussion points for the multi-town helicopter noise meeting, which followed in Brookhaven Town Hall on September 24.
“We generated a list of possible policies and procedures we thought would be good discussion points with the East Hampton Town Board, airport managers and the pilots association,” said Throne-Holst. “Things like limiting access to the airport, altitude requirements and alternate routes.”
In addition to those at the September 17 meeting, among the 50 or so participants at the September 24 meeting in Brookhaven were County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, town officials including Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilman Dominick Stanzione from East Hampton, Supervisor Scott Russell from Southold, Supervisor Jim Doherty from Shelter Island, mayors Laura Nolan from North Haven and Paul Rickenbach from East Hampton, and FAA representatives, airport personnel and pilots.
“It was well attended, but to be honest, a rather frustrating meeting,” conceded Throne-Holst. “It took two and half hours before we got to the real meat of it and what the alternatives were that could be considered.”
“The long and short of it was I felt we were not really being heard,” she added. “Altitude issues were not addressed, points of transfer off the northern route were not addressed, or whether the southern route did or did not have any legs.”
Throne-Holst added the only idea put forth came from representatives of the pilots association who suggested the continued use of Noyac as an arrival corridor to the airport, but proposed switching the departure route towards Barcelona Neck in East Hampton.
“Helicopters would then cut over at the tip of Shelter Island and North Haven and pick up the northern route there,” said Throne-Holst. “Mayor Nolan and Supervisor Doherty were not pleased to hear that as an alternative.”
“My sense is we can’t pass this buck,” she added. “I’m not interested in transferring pain from one group of neighbors to another.”
Throne-Holst was particularly dismayed that, despite the presence of eight FAA representatives at the meeting, her questions about the southern flight path – which would take aircraft over the ocean south of the airport – were not addressed.
“None of them was willing to answer questions. It’s not a positive reflection on government agencies and frustrating to us,” she said. “The upshot is a letter is being authored through the auspices of Thiele’s office where we will simply demand that the southerly route be explored further and a mandate be attached to it.”
Throne-Holst and Scalera have developed a full list of alternatives for noise abatement policies they expect to now pursue. These include altitude restrictions, limiting of airport access (both hours of operation and number of flights), and the responsibility of pilots and the FAA.
“That’s what I’d like to see next — a sit down with airport mangers, the pilots association and representatives from East Hampton to see what self-imposed regulations we might be able to get to next and do that rather soon,” said Throne-Holst.
“The FAA is fairly reluctant to get into any regulatory discussions and mandates here. Our position with the pilots association and the airport is if we can’t work out a voluntary agreement, we’ll be left with little choice in terms of our alternatives to make sure these things start to happen,” added Throne Holst, who pointed to an airport in Naples, Florida as an example of one that was able to regulate some of its air traffic as the result of legal action with the FAA.
“I’m the last to want to go that route, but I feel either you come to the table and put in place voluntary mandates or that’s something that will be considered,” she said.
Resident Stephen Levine noted though the Naples airport was partially regulated, it was an anomaly and came only after a difficult legal battle with the FAA.
“They went through it and had to settle it,” acknowledged Christine Scalera. “Litigation costs money.”
Though many Noyac residents in attendance expressed frustration over the situation, Cunningham, who took part in both meetings, reassured the group that progress was being made.
“You folks here were so well represented by your elected officials — Bishop, Thiele, Anna Throne-Holst, Christine Scalera. They were like pit bulls with these people and did not let them off the hook for one minute,” said Cunningham. “These FAA people emit a regulatory fog and make you not sure of what question to ask. But they did a good job sticking to the issues.”
“These were groundbreaking meetings. We’d never had that before,” added Cunningham. “You don’t usually see chief elected officials — they’ll generally send a representative —plus you had four town supervisors and two mayors.”
“We need meaningful concessions,” said Noyac resident Gene Polito, addressing Throne-Holst. “What’s the bottom line you are willing to accept as altitude?”
“It’s not a matter of what I’m willing to accept, it’s an unregulated reality here,” countered Throne-Holst. “We’re not asking them to change regulations, we’re asking them to put them where there are none. If the altitude reality is one that doesn’t take care of our problem, then we get into hours, curfews and restrictions.”
“So they’ll come up with their limits and say ‘Take it or leave it.’ At what point are we not going to take it?” asked Polito. “Do we sue them?”
“We may get to that,” reiterated Throne Holst. “The airport is not under our jurisdiction. We have to recognize that and the fact the airport is not going to get shut down.”
Janice LoRusso, a longtime resident of Noyac who now says she’s beleaguered by helicopters flying over her house on the North Fork, admitted to crashing the September 24 meeting and was quick to put the issue into Biblical perspective.
“I see this as a David and Goliath thing,” she said. “We are the Davids and we just gotta get a bigger rock.”