By Mara Certic
Just days before the East Hampton Board was scheduled to discuss draft legislation to impose for the first time restrictions at East Hampton Airport in an attempt to reduce noise complaints, an organization of aviation advocates and business owners has taken two legal steps it says are aimed at preserving equal access to the airport.
The coalition filed suit on Thursday, January 29, in federal District Court against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its administrator, Michael Huerta, and challenges the settlement in 2005 of a case involving airport opponents. The second complaint was made to the FAA—asking it to direct the town to complete work to close what it calls “critical safety and security gaps at the airport.”
The Friends of the East Hampton Airport coalition comprises small local businesses, aviation experts, business leaders and national aviation advocates. In addition to the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, four New York City-based helicopter charter companies, one jet charter company and the Helicopter Association International are listed as co-plaintiffs.
“Our coalition is eager to work with the town, the FAA and our fellow residents to help resolve complaints related to noise, but we won’t do it in a way that compromises safety or violates federal law,” Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the coalition, said in a press release issued on Thursday.
The first complaint filed by the coalition on Thursday is asking the court to determine that the FAA lacked the authority in a settlement agreement in 2005 to waive commitments East Hampton Town made when it accepted FAA funding. That decision has been interpreted by the current town government as meaning as of the first of the year it is free to impose use restrictions, such as curfews, at the airport.
In 2001, the town received a $1.4 million grant from the FAA, which normally, would have required the town to enforce certain commitments (called grant assurances,) for 20 years. It was later determined that the grant was acquired for guidelines and projects included in the 1996 airport master plan, which had never formally been adopted by the town board.
In a 2005 settlement with the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion, the FAA agreed not to enforce the grant restrictions related to the town’s proprietary power over the airport after December 31, 2014.
The coalition maintains the FAA has been inconsistent and mentioned a recent case involving the Santa Monica Airport in California, where the FAA stated that it “may not by agreement waive its statutory enforcement jurisdiction over future cases.”
“The coalition said that the inconsistency in the FAA’s position must be resolved quickly, because the town is actively considering the imposition of discriminatory restrictions as to the times, number and type of aircraft that can access the airport now that the FAA has putatively stopped enforcing the equal access assurances,” reads a press release issued by the coalition on Thursday.
“They’re still peddling this tired conspiracy theory that the town’s trying to shut down the airport,” said Pat Trunzo, a former town board member and one of the members of the Committee to Stop Airport Expansion.
Mr. Trunzo said he does not believe the suit will go too far, and that there isn’t really much question as to whether the FAA had the authority to waive the town’s commitments.
The noise subcommittee has been very careful when formulating how it phrases its recommendations, according to Mr. Trunzo, which, he said, led him to believe any challenges are unlikely to be fruitful.
“Any challenges to the town adopting a nighttime curfew are looking at equally dim prospects of success,” he said.
The second complaint asks the FAA to direct the town to address several safety and security issues the coalition says have long been ignored. Some of the improvements include replacing the lighting system, building a deer fence and removing some “hazardous obstructions,” including trees.
According to Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, many of the “ safety and security issues” brought up in the coalition’s complaint have been subject to town resolutions in the past year and have already been bonded for, and some have been completed.
An engineer is currently creating plans for deer fencing for the airport, and specs for an automated airport weather station are being drawn up in time for it to be installed before summer, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said.
“Despite claims by the board that the town can fund the airport and its maintenance without FAA grants, the board is contemplating arbitrary and discriminatory aircraft restrictions that would drastically reduce airport traffic during peak months, slashing the airport’s revenue and further depriving the airport of desperately needed safety and security improvements,” the coalition release states.
Last December, members of the airport finance subcommittee presented a report on airport revenue, which concluded that even if FAA funding was eliminated and the number of helicopters was reduced by half, the airport is in good financial shape.
Several revenue enhancements, including a paid parking system and some property rentals, could create even more income for the town, according to the budget committee.