By Mara Certic
Just three days before proposed restrictions on flights at East Hampton Airport were scheduled to be the subject of a hearing, the town board’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee announced it would be unable to provide the town with a report on the potential economic impact of the four proposed laws.
Members of BFAC had told the town board they would have the final report complete in time for this Thursday’s public hearing at LTV Studios in Wainscott, but its members have reached a stalemate over just what the restrictions would mean.
“The committee has been unable to reach a consensus on a five-year earnings and cash flow forecast if the proposed rules are implemented,” BFAC Chairman Arthur Malman wrote in a memo to the town board dated Monday, March 2.
The committee had been charged with determining if the airport could remain financially self-sufficient over the long haul if the four proposed laws, which would impose a night-time curfew, ban helicopters on busy summer weekends and take other steps to reduce noise complaints, were adopted. The committee is also trying to take into account what will happen if the town finances $7 million of capital improvements over the next five year. It is also factoring in an estimated $3 million in litigation costs over the next three years.
“A significant number of members of the committee do not support forecasting the financial impact of the proposed rules and attendant rules litigation, because they believe that the variables, especially after the 2015 summer season, are too great and/or further data, research and perspectives from industry experts as well as experimentation with all or some of the proposed rules, is needed,” Mr. Malman wrote.
On the other side of the coin, other members of the committee feel confident that the committee could in fact reasonably make a fiscal forecast for the next five years, and that the airport would be financially sustainable.
Soon after Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez announced during Tuesday’s East Hampton Town Board work session that the committee would not be able to complete its report, Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for Friends of the East Hampton Airport, sent out a release stating it was a “major blow” to the town’s proposed legislation.
“The finance committee’s refusal to sign off on this deeply misguided proposal confirms the true economic hazards of the plan and the town board’s blatant disregard for these risks. The airport’s future and the town’s financial health is on the line and when you can’t get your own budget committee to sign off on a plan, shouldn’t it give pause and force everyone to reassess?” he stated.
“We call on the board to postpone any vote on these restrictions so the people of East Hampton can get a full and fair analysis of what these restrictions mean for our community, property taxes, local businesses and economy,” Mr. Riegelhaupt continued.
Pat Trunzo, a member of the noise subcommittee and the BFAC, doesn’t think the failure to reach a consensus “means all that much.”
“My take, as just one member of the committee, is that the split is due to the fact that the aviators don’t like these proposed rules and don’t want to agree to any of them,” Mr. Trunzo said.
“The report of the committee is not merely delayed or untimely. It will never be issued, because members of the committee with aviation interests will not permit a report that shows any circumstances under which the airport will be self-sustaining,” said David Gruber, another committee member, in an email to members of the press.
The BFAC, which is made up of members who are opposed to airport noise as well as aviation enthusiasts, had previously unanimously advised the board that the airport could sustain itself financially even with the complete elimination of helicopter operations.
“Up until these proposed rules came into the picture there was no disaccord” within the committee, Mr. Trunzo said in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon.
The four proposed laws would ban helicopters from landing or taking off at the airport during summer weekends; would impose a curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for all aircraft and a stricter curfew for “noisy” aircraft and a fourth law is aimed at limiting the number of touch-and-go operations allowed by louder aircraft at the airport during the summer season.
“From where I stand, the math clearly shows the airport can be self-sustaining and support the $7 million in capital improvements and the $3 million in litigation over the next five and three years respectively,” Mr. Trunzo added.
In response to the financial committee’s gridlock, the Airport Planning Committee’s noise sub-committee submitted its 13 findings and recommendations to the town board.
The noise subcommittee explained in its report how the airport can remain financially sustainable, and suggested a one-time landing fee increase, which would cover the cost of revenue lost by the proposed laws.
The noise subcommittee suggested that a proposed paid parking lot and leasing vacant lots could bring in $1.5 million in revenue, and that the new regulations might render the air traffic control tower unneeded, which means the money budgeted to maintain it could go to recovering lost revenue and would result in a landing fee increase of just 10 percent; a landing fee increase of 50 percent would be roughly equivalent to the cost of an additional three minutes of flight.
The BFAC will meet on Thursday, March 19, in the East Hampton Town Hall meeting room.
Airport Manager Jemille Charlton presented the town board with an overview of 2014 operations at the work session on Tuesday morning. All identifiable flight operations increased from this year to last, with the total number of flights up by 4,724, from 20,922 to 25,646.
Mr. Charlton also said that the airport received $1.68 million in landing fees last year, and received revenue of $3.18 million in fuel sales.
Also during Tuesday’s work session, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town’s planning director, presented a draft of the preliminary airport traffic diversion study, which will be used in an environmental impact study of the proposed laws.
The study is being prepared by airport analyst Peter Stumpp, and is looking at the impact the proposed legislation would have on the Montauk Airport, Gabreski Airport and the Southampton Heliport.
The public hearing on the four laws is scheduled to take place at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the LTV Studios on Industrial Road, just south of the airport.