by Karl Grossman
It’s February and we’re still deep in winter—but in just a month spring will arrive and with it the birds of spring will return…and also the noisy helicopters ferrying people to and from the Hamptons that have so disrupted life on eastern Long Island in recent years.
But Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine and his staff have been busy in preparation of the chopper invasion and last week introduced new legislation to quell the helicopter racket.
At the Suffolk Legislature’s last meeting of 2008, Mr. Romaine’s last measure seeking to dim the helicopter din was narrowly defeated. There was a near-tie on his bill to establish a minimum cruising altitude of 2,500 feet for helicopters flying in Suffolk. Eight legislators voted yes, nine no and there was one abstention.
After that bill lost, Mr. Romaine vowed to his fellow lawmakers that “this is not going to go away.” He would be back with new legislation with the new year, and “I’ll bring the people.”Â Large numbers of people affected by the noise can be expected in coming months to be at legislative meetings urging legislators to vote for Mr. Romaine’s new bill.
His new measure is different from his previous legislation in that it doesn’t set a minimum altitude requirement. Helicopter operators and a representative of the FAA maintained that the federal government pre-empted localities from establishing minimum altitude requirements for aircraft.
So this time although there’s no set minimum altitude—offsetting this claim—Mr. Romaine’s bill focuses on flying in a “careless and reckless manner.” And it defines this as “failing to take all actions reasonably necessary for safe operation or operating at an altitude that creates a hazard or undue hardship for persons and property on the surface.”
This certainly hits the problem on the head because the roaring choppers certainly have created an “undue hardship” for people on the ground.
Mr. Romaine and his aide Bill Faulk have spent considerable time digging into federal and state court decisions and have found that prohibiting flying in a “careless and reckless manner” is within the powers of localities.
The bill sets forth the situation: “Low flying helicopters have become a public nuisance in Suffolk County,” it begins. “The Federal Aviation Administration has failed to regulate the operation of helicopters,” it notes—accurately. “The operation of helicopters at low altitudes is presumed to be a hazard to persons and property on the surface and constitutes careless and reckless operation.” Further, “other municipalities, including the City of New York, have established regulations for helicopter operations within their jurisdictions. Therefore,” it concludes, “the purpose of this law is to ensure safe operations of helicopters passing through the air boundaries of Suffolk County and to preserve and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the residents of Suffolk County.”
Penalties for violation of the proposed county law would be a fine of “up to $1,000 and/or one year in prison per offense.” The prospect of jail surely would impact on the chopper operators.
Mr. Romaine’s strategy also involves using a Suffolk County stand to get action on the federal level. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop have tried to negotiate with the helicopter operators—but there was no relief. Mr. Romaine sees county action as being “an irritant” to spur federal movement.
The FAA—with a mission to promote air travel, apparently even noisy chopper traffic—has, meanwhile, been nowhere on the issue.
That, says Legislator John Kennedy, Jr., an attorney, is a key opening for local legislation. When the supposed regulatory body “hasn’t fully occupied the field, there may be a role for statute of a lesser level of government,” he notes. “I think it’s Swiss cheese. I think there is a place for us that actually helps to protect our constituents.”
Legislator Dan Losquadro speaks of “the only time we’ve seen any effort” on the federal level being when the county has moved to “put something on the books that would call these practices into question. And absent of that, there has been…some press conferences…I fully support us doing something to give ourselves a measure of local control.”
The Hamptons helicopter business has marred warm weather months on eastern Long Island in a cacophony of intense noise—which must be quelled.