By Karl Grossman
East Hampton Airport — it’s the biggest noisemaker on eastern Long Island.
It gets the lion’s share of the helicopters that ferry some very privileged people between Manhattan and the Hamptons — flying low and loud over Suffolk County. The machines roar over Brookhaven Town, then western Southampton and Riverhead, then the North and the South Forks and Shelter Island.
The chopper traffic is a relatively new phenomenon that has gotten completely out of hand.
They also fly to and from Gabreski Airport in Westhampton and Southampton Village’s helipad, but the main destination is the East Hampton Airport.
And the East Hampton community — at chopper ground zero — is at a crossroads.
“Our peaceful quality of life is threatened by airport noise,” declared a statement from Joan Osborne, vice president of the East Hampton Village Preservation Society, at a public hearing held by the East Hampton Town Board last week.
The hearing was ostensibly about a new deer fence at the airport. But a far broader issue was involved: whether the town should take money from the Federal Aviation Administration to buy the fence which would kick in continuing FAA authority over the field.
Like many a federal regulatory agency, the FAA is a lapdog, not a watchdog, of what it’s supposed to regulate. It’s in a conflict of interest being a booster of aviation and somehow, at the same time, regulating it. As for aviation noise, it does “a poor job,” says the national Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, and should “turn that responsibility over to the EPA.”
Whether East Hampton should keep accepting money from the FAA and allow the FAA to remain in control of the town-owned airport was a main issue in the recent town election. Organizations including the Quiet Skies Coalition, along with the Democratic candidates for town office, called for East Hampton to cut it off with the FAA and gain control of the field — and then limit the number of airport operations, impose a curfew and exclude aircraft deemed too noisy (spelled: helicopters).
The incumbent Republican Supervisor, Bill Wilkinson, survived by only 15 votes. But from its cocky stance at last Thursday’s hearing, you wouldn’t know the GOP-run board came within a political inch of being upset.
There was an overflow crowd at East Hampton Town Hall and that was expected, but the hearing wasn’t switched to a larger meeting hall as is common when there’s a public meeting on a red-hot controversy in a Long Island town. There was no loudspeaker letting people who couldn’t get into the room and were left standing outside to hear what was happening. And Mr. Wilkinson and allies on the board were especially sensitive when Jeff Bragman, attorney for the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, charged the board sought to rush its decision. He was then emphatically told his time was up although other speakers went past their allotted three minutes without such a fiery reaction.
Before that, Mr. Bragman talked about “the ultra-luxury travelers in helicopters.” The choppers coming into East Hampton “sound like the [helicopter] attack scene in Apocalypse Now.” As to the FAA, “Do you think they care a hoot about controlling noise?”
And he spoke against “just shuffling around” flights by varying routes when, he said, what’s needed is “fundamental change.” The town should stop taking money from the FAA and be able to exercise independent control. “You have the power to do it!”
But a main point of Mr. Bragman — that in 2014 East Hampton’s current obligations to the FAA will expire and the town could control the field — was contested by a town legal consultant. Attorney Peter Hirsch of Denver said “the town is grant-obligated to the FAA” to “2021 or later,” indeed some of the obligations “are permanent” and “never expire.” He claimed federal law pre-empts localities on aviation. And “because of the federal law, the only way” the town could control its field, he said, would be by “closing the airport.”
If that’s the only thing that can be done, it should be: the noisemaker should be shut down. The East Hampton Airport is far from being a public transportation center. It services a very select few — with much noise. It constitutes, like a raucous racetrack, a public nuisance — and not only for people in East Hampton, but for folks throughout eastern Long Island.