Helicopter Legislation Necessary

Posted on 05 September 2008

By Karl Grossman

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy intends to sign into law the bill introduced by Suffolk Legislator Edward Romaine establishing a minimum altitude for helicopters flying over Suffolk if the measure passes the legislature. He is concerned, though, that it will be overturned on the basis of the federal government pre-empting localities from setting restrictions on aircraft. That pre-emption claim, however, is being challenged by research just done by a Romaine staffer which found that New York City has imposed standards for helicopter operations, also because of noise.

In any event, Mr. Levy said last week: “I will support any effort to curtail these choppers.” He said “we are already looking at increasing the fees at Gabreski for helicopters.” Suffolk County owns Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton and sets take-off and landing fees for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft at it.
Gail Clyma of Westhampton, who has been battling noisy helicopters at Gabreski, said higher fees “would be a good first step” and should be “several times the current charge for the largest planes since the disturbance ‘copters create is way out of proportion to their size.”

Representatives of helicopter operators have, since Mr. Romaine introduced his bill to require choppers to cruise at no less than 2,500 feet over Suffolk, claimed that the county is “pre-empted” by the federal government in regulating aircraft. But Bill Faulk, legislative aide to Mr. Romaine, has found that under the “Rules of the City of New York” is a section titled “Helicopter Noise and Safety” which reads: “To prevent unnecessary noise all takeoffs and landings at public use heliports in the city shall be made over water” and “except where necessary for takeoff or landing…no person may operate a helicopter in the City of New York below…an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle.”

Said Mr. Romaine last week: “This contradicts those who have maintained that Suffolk County is pre-empted.”

Mr. Faulk said he has found no indication of the city rules being overturned, and he has found limits in various states.

Meanwhile, the Number 2 official in the Suffolk government, William Lindsay, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, declared last week: “I think some our citizens are being abused by this helicopter industry…It’s a major, major problem.” He and other members of the legislature were fully introduced to it as residents who suffer from the noise of helicopters ferrying people between Manhattan and the Hamptons testified at a public hearing on the Romaine bill two weeks ago. Also at the hearing, Robert Grotell of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council made the pre-emption argument, with Mr. Lindsay responding: “We probably are pre-empted, but that issue has never stopped this legislature.” This was met by applause from the capacity audience.

Among the dozens speaking was Barbara McAdam of Cutchogue who told of “the skies filled with the incessant noise of commuter helicopters.”

Patricia Curry of Noyac testified that “the level of noise is absolutely horrendous.” She said that helicopter traffic in and out of East Hampton Airport—acknowledged as the busiest field for chopper traffic in Suffolk—was 17 percent higher last year than it was the year before and is being projected as increasing from 15 to 20 percent in each of the next two years. “Unless something is done,” said Ms. Curry, “the future will be worse.”

Ray Huntington of Cutchogue said of the Romaine bill: “Three little words: it is necessary.”

The measure declares that “low-flying helicopters have become a public nuisance in Suffolk County” and the “recent agreement between public officials and helicopter operators”—a deal worked out by Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop with the industry—“has failed to alleviate the public nuisance.”

The helicopter noise situation has, meanwhile, become an issue in the race now underway in the lst Congressional District. The Republican nominee, Lee Zeldin, is charging that Democrat Bishop “has not done enough.”

A huge public nuisance is involved and, as for Mr. Romaine’s bill, it is necessary.

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