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July 17, 2013

New Proposal To End Airport Stalemate



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For two decades pro and anti-airport factions have engaged in intense debate, litigation, and a constant game of one-upmanship concerning the future of East Hampton Airport.

This week the East Hampton Aviation Association introduced a four-point proposal designed to end the rancor and seek a lasting compromise. But opponents immediately countered that the proposal has fatal flaws.

The EHAA proposal specifically pledges there will never be an expansion of the airport; it will continue to aggressively seek an Atlantic route for helicopters that will significantly reduce noise. The pilots association also pledges to continue to support noise reduction options, and to secure federal funds upwards of $7 million to fund needed repairs.

The poster child of those opposed to the airport is currently the intense noise generated by a stream of helicopters that make the jaunt from New York City – the noise effects areas of Southampton Town as well.

The overriding issue is whether the town should accept federal money to defray expenses from the airport. Opponents say if the town stops doing so, it will be able to chart its own course come 2021, when the last of the Federal Aviation Administration assurance grants are set to expire.

Some airport opponents are currently appealing a ruling that would allow the town to implement its Airport Master Plan. But, said Gerard Boleis, president of the association, it is simply the latest maneuver from The Committee To Stop Airport Expansion, David Gruber, and the other petitioners. "In the past two decades there have been so many lawsuits and restraining orders that I can't count them," he said.

The opponents maintain that a lawsuit that allowed New York City to regulate helicopter traffic proves that if a municipality isn't beholden to the FAA, it can limit helicopter traffic. But David Schaffer, an attorney who specializes in aviation law and government relations, disagreed with that assertion.

Schaffer said the National Helicopter Corp v. New York City case does not support the proposition that a municipality can regulate helicopters if it rejects FAA funding.

"Just the opposite is true," Schaffer wrote in an opinion sent to the EHAA. "New York City had taken no FAA funding and had not agreed to any grant assurances." Schaffer opined that the National Helicopter case confirms that even without FAA funding a municipality's regulations, "must still meet the same federal standards for establishing noise restrictions as an airport that has accepted funds."

Jeffrey Bragman an attorney for the petitioners disagreed with Schaffer's opinion. "That's not accurate. In reality they approved all but three of the restrictions." Bragman said the court approved weekday and weekend curfews on the helicopters, a prohibition based on noise, and a 47 percent reduction in operations. Schaffer, Bragman charged, was "a hired gun" for the Aviation Association.

All parties concerned would like to see the FAA approve an ocean track so more helicopters can avoid overland route to the airport. Local officials – 19 in all – have sent letters the Department of Transportation requesting the overseas route.

Kathy Cunningham, the chairman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said there is already a "southern" route, but relatively few helicopter pilots use it. "There are complications with the weather, and they like to fly over the LIE – it's an easy landmark."

Proponents of the airport have long suspected that the real goal of the anti-airport faction is to close the airport altogether. Boleis said if the town doesn't accept any more federal funds "the airport can be closed in 2021 by a simple 3-2 vote of the town board."

Bragman disagreed. "That's nonsense. It would go through SEQRA, it's a Type One action. There would have to be an impact statement."

That result would be disastrous for the town. According to a New York State Economic Impact study the airport provides 91 jobs and pumps in millions of dollars a year to the local economy. Moreover, the shakers and movers that use the airport are typically high-end property purchasers who not only help maintain a healthy high-end real estate market but who also provide service jobs for local landscapers, builders, etc.

The EHAA also points to a recent poll that found that 88 percent of East Hampton residents support continued FAA funding. Boleis believes airport proponents think the tide of public opinion will change once taxpayers have to pony up for airport maintenance and repairs. Boleis also pointed out that a relative handful of residents are responsible for the hundreds of noise complaints made. "Most people want a reasonable curfew," Cunningham asserted.

Cunningham said her group doesn't want the airport to close. "We don't want to deny our local pilots. We'd like to see a business plan that demonstrates we need FAA funds. The airport earns a lot of money."

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