By Emily J. Weitz
For the thousands of residents living in the flight path of East Hampton Airport, the sound of a helicopter or jet is a teeth chattering, conversation stopping daily reality. These are people who would not classify airport noise as a nuisance. They would say it drastically compromises their quality of life, pulling them out of bed in the middle of the night and tearing through the peace of a Sunday afternoon.
These are also people who have banded together to create the Quiet Skies Coalition, an effort first and foremost to regain control over what happens at East Hampton Airport.
The Quiet Skies Coalition claim they are not against the airport. The vice chairman of the coalition, Frank Dalene, is a pilot himself who has flown in and out of East Hampton for years. Rather, the coalition members argue that the primary problem is that the town has lost authority on how to handle airport issues.
The group argues that because the town has a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the FAA has certain rules East Hampton must follow. One of these rules, or grant assurances, the coalition notes, states that the town can’t impose a curfew. They say this means that flights can come and go at all hours of the night.
They add that another provision limits the town’s ability to regulate the types of aircraft that comes and go.
“Aircraft are categorized by stages,” explained attorney Sheila Jones at a presentation by the Quiet Skies Coalition last week at LTV Studios in Wainscott. “Most helicopters are Stage 2, and jets might be Stage 2 or 3.”
Though the group suggests the airport might be able to regulate noise and traffic by limiting certain categories of aircraft from coming to East Hampton Airport, attorney David Gruber, a member of the Quiet Skies Coalition, explained in a statement that “The FAA policy grants unrestricted access for all aircraft types 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
Jones went on to explain why the FAA gets to make these decisions for an airport owned and operated by a local government. She notes that it’s because the town accepted money from the FAA in the form of grants to make improvements on the airport.
“But the airport doesn’t need money from the FAA,” says Kathy Cunningham, member of the Quiet Skies Coalition. “The airport is collecting $600,000 a year in landing fees alone.”
Members added that fuel charges and storage fees also help the airport generate a strong annual profit. Because of that income, Quiet Skies says the airport should incorporate improvements into its budget instead of asking for more money from the FAA and extending the contracts.
Jones notes that pertinent aspects of this FAA contract, including the ability to regulate types of aircraft and the ability to set up a curfew, are due to expire on December 31, 2014. If they were allowed to expire, and the town chose not to accept any more money from the FAA, Jones explains, the town would be able to make decisions without too much interference from the FAA.
“They’re not just going to disappear,” she warns, “But they wouldn’t have the legal authority that they do when they’re in a contract with the town.”
But the current administration is at odds with this philosophy. The idea that the town needs to stop accepting FAA money to deal with airport noise and traffic concerns is “an expensive proposition,” says Dominick Stanzione, East Hampton Town Councilman. “They [The Quiet Skies Coalition] made a connection between the FAA and the achievement of noise mitigation goals, and it is fallacious.”
Stanzione believes that the town should continue taking FAA funds because it is “the fiscally responsible approach to capital management on behalf of the town.”
While he expresses utmost respect for the Quiet Skies Coalition, he believes that “The legitimate concerns of noise can be addressed through a comprehensive plan within the FAA framework.”
Members of the Quiet Skies Coalition disagree.
Jones says that in regards to solving the public’s complaints, until the grant assurances run out, “Our hands are tied.”
Cunningham wonders why the town can’t just allow the grant assurances to run out and then deal with the matters on a local level. Possible solutions offered by the group include imposing a curfew, closing on weekends, excluding particular aircraft types, and restricting the total number of aircraft operations.
She notes these are exactly the limitations that the 34th Street Heliport in Manhattan imposed, and they have been deemed legal by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest federal court in our jurisdiction.
“But as long as the airport is accepting money from the FAA,” says Cunningham, “we can’t even try to implement these measures.”
Members of the Quiet Skies Coalition add that in the summer months, East Hampton Airport has approximately 400 operations daily, which they say is nearly as many as Long Island MacArthur Airport. According to the Quiet Skies Coalition, though, only about 1 percent of the population of East Hampton benefits from the airport in any way.
Stanzione acknowledges that residents are being negatively impacted, but when it comes to the airport, noted the town intends to work within the bounds of the FAA to appease citizens.
“We believe we should try to minimize the negative effects of aviation while maximizing the benefits,” says Stanzione. “We already have a voluntary curfew between 11 [p.m.] and 7[a.m.], and we have 97 percent compliance with that.”
Stanzione offered additional measures the town may take.
“Maybe people will sell property to the airport,” he says. “We might work with ground operations like landing and fueling practices. There are all kinds of rules that can be pressed for meticulous operation.”
But according to the Quiet Skies Coalition, as long as the FAA is applying its regulations to East Hampton Airport, there will be a disconnect that will keep local residents from finding peace in their own backyards.