Republican candidates Steven Gains, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Richard Haeg at Wainscott CAC meeting last Saturday.
What started as a run-of-the-mill Meet the Candidates Forum at the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting on Saturday morning quickly dissolved into a contentious debate over the East Hampton Airport. It was a debate that ended after East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson was repeatedly questioned by members of the Quiet Skies Coalition and CAC Chairwoman Diana Weir stopped further discussion about the airport from the gallery.
Following a roughly 50-minute talk with Democratic supervisor Zach Cohen and town board candidates Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc, an hour-and-45-minute introduction and airport debate ensued during the Republican portion of the morning. Meanwhile, Marilyn Behan and Bill Mott, Independence Party candidates for town board, waited an hour past when they were scheduled to speak.
The Republican portion of the debate began cordially enough with Supervisor Wilkinson speaking. Wilkinson, who lost the 2007 election to then-Supervisor Bill McGintee, but won handily in 2009 after close to a $30 million town deficit was uncovered, detailed how he was able to streamline departments, cut 50 positions through voluntary retirement and present a 2011 budget that cut taxes by 11 percent. The supervisor’s 2012 budget, now under review by the town board, cuts taxes by an additional 0.2 percent.
But after his fellow Republican candidates, including town board hopefuls Steven Gaines and Richard Haeg, made their introductions, the topic quickly switched from finances to the airport.
The East Hampton Airport and its operations has become one of the most heavily debated issues in this campaign season, primarily due to the growing ranks of the Quiet Skies Coalition. The vocal group made up of East Hampton and Southampton town residents hope to control activity at the airport.
Cohen and town board candidates Sylvia Overby and Peter Van Scoyoc have already announced their positions on the airport. In the wake of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval of the town’s Airport Layout Plan (ALP), which has led the town towards the construction of a seasonal air traffic control tower, the Democrats said they support implementing the tower, but would refrain from taking FAA grants and the accompanying assurances until they are convinced the tower would solve some of the noise issues and other environmental factors being voiced.
The team has called for a two-year comprehensive study of the tower’s effect, as well as the finances of the airport.
On Saturday morning, Quiet Skies Coalition vice chairman and Wainscott resident Frank Dalene credited Supervisor Wilkinson with his handling of the town’s finances, and said now it was time to discuss the airport.
Dalene recounted a situation last week where he had a helicopter fly within 10-feet of his house to avoid the cloud layer coming off the ocean.
Supervisor Wilkinson, who said he had been to Dalene’s house in response to his complaints, believes the airport is an asset. He said he would take FAA funding since it has already been taxed federally, and will continue to work with state and federal officials, as well as a new regional noise abatement committee, to develop solutions like a southern flight path over Georgica Pond and the installation of a seasonal control tower to address issues at the airport.
Dalene asked the supervisor to take his own data on air traffic “more seriously,” after which Gaines said the airport issue had “hijacked the whole meeting”
Noyac resident Dan Rudansky said the helicopter and aircraft situation was also impacting Southampton Town residents and that taking FAA money would not allow the town to have full control over the airport.
Wilkinson said he believes the FAA grant assurances actually prolong the town’s agreement with the FAA to 2021 and that he would accept additional funding in the future.
At that point, Weir — a former Republican town board member — began trying to wrest back control of the meeting, calling for an end to all airport questions.
“Why are questions being restricted,” asked Quiet Skies Coalition chairman and Wainscott resident Barry Raebeck.
Weir said the airport was a “contentious issue” and the forum was not hosted solely to discuss that one issue.
“It is the number one campaign issue,” said Raebeck.
“It wasn’t the number one issue four years ago, six years ago,” replied Weir.
“I didn’t have seaplanes flying over my house constantly four years ago,” said Raebeck.
After a discussion about the impacts of what has become known as “The Pit,” an industrial commercial property that, like the airport, has drawn the ire of some residents for a decade, Dalene took to the floor again, objecting to the fact that the CAC denied the right of Wainscott residents to speak about the airport.
Weir responded that she felt “things were getting out of control.”
Gaines added he felt the debate was “disingenuous.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t know what the truth is,” said Gaines. “I know the noise issue is intolerable. I know we have to change it. It just can’t go on.”
While the issue was not as hotly debated among the Democratic candidates, Cohen said he has gotten more emails about the airport than any other issue.
“There is a real division in the last 20 years that has not led to a good dialogue,” Cohen said.
Cohen admitted all the candidates for supervisor and town board believe the installation of a seasonal control tower would be a benefit. But he said he would not take risks that would shut down “future options to control the airport” until the town knew it would have full control with the tower in place. He called for a two-year-study to ensure that would happen before taking FAA money, saying he was not against taking federal funds, only that he would first want more assurance through a study, if elected.
Cohen added that even if the town gains local control it would have to use that power under approved standards, for instance, only allowing some of the less “noisier” jets to fly into the airport.
Raebeck said that while noise is an issue, and a form of pollution, he is concerned with the other kind of pollution being generated by the airport. “If there were a coal power plant being operated on that property, it would be monitored,” he said.
After the meeting, Independence Party town board candidate Marilyn Behan shared her views on the airport.
“The airport is not going away,” she said. “It is going to be with us for a long time and yes, it is growing.”
Behan said that she feels the town should take FAA funding, based on her research on other airports, talking with pilots and the FAA.
“It is better to be on the safe side than any other place,” she said. “We need a deer fence, we need to repair a runway, we need a tower to control the landings and take offs and their approach positions and we will be able to work with that once we have the ALP plan in place. I feel there is a noise problem. That would be something for us to work on.”
Behan added she would like to see discussions about limiting the times aircraft is allowed to come into the airport.
Mott, a decades long member of the Bridgehampton Fire Department, which services Wainscott, said there are maintenance and repair issues that need to be completed at the airport. Like all candidates, he agreed the tower was a key component to controlling the airport. However, he said he would like to take a “wait and see approach” on whether or not to take FAA funding.
“I don’t know if we should take money for the next two years,” he said. “I like the concept, but I believe we should operate cautiously.”