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WLNG
April 05, 2006

In East Hampton: McGintee Closes Controversial Runway


Citing advice from legal counsel and insurance experts, Town Supervisor Bill McGintee closed runway 4-22 at the East Hampton Town Airport on Monday.

Last year, soon after The Independent published a cover story with the headline "No Way Out" discussing the lack of a hurricane evacuation plan for the East End, airport supporters began running a TV ad that built upon the conundrum. Scenes of bumper-to-bumper traffic were shown with a voiceover asking how people might get out in case of an emergency.

The spot, which runs on Cablevision, goes on to describe the airport as unsafe. It calls upon viewers to urge town officials to repair runways at the facility.

Ironically, what was designed by airport proponents to put pressure on the town to repair the runway might have proved its undoing.

"The ads paint a very grim picture," Leonard Scioacia, president of Cook, Hall & Hyde Inc. Insurance and Risk Advisory Services, wrote in a letter to McGintee this week. "Any accident at the airport is likely to result in significant bodily injury or property damage," the letter continues, concluding with a recommendation for the runway closure "pending assessment by a qualified organization specializing in runway safety evaluations." In effect, because of the ads, the town is on notice as to the safety of the runway.

For close to a decade, airport proponents have lobbied for the repaving of 4-22, which is described as a very important runway for small planes. Grass growing through cracks in the pavement has been a ubiquitous part of the debate when it is resurrected periodically.

During the Schneiderman administration, the Republican majority supported an "in place in kind" repaving of the runway. However, lawsuits instigated by neighbors, some of them key figures in the local Democratic Party, stalled progress.

Campaigning for office in 2003, Democrats refuted accusations that they wanted to close the airport down. Instead, they vowed to work to ensure the facility's safety. That was two and a half years ago. In the interim, officials targeted noise abatement and began an arduous process of updating a Master Plan for the facility, in contrast to political opponents who promised to repair 4-22 as an action separate from the Master Plan update. Meanwhile, airport opponents decried the potential repaving as part of a covert plan to expand the facility.

One of the most vocal opponents, former Town Democratic Party Leader David Gruber, has reportedly spent a fortune funding studies critical of the airport and engaging in litigation with airport proponents.

Gruber, who still cuts a wide swath within the party, will surely be accused of influencing the town board, which is comprised entirely of Democrats. As of press time, most of the local flyers were said to be at an air show in Florida and were unavailable for comment.

Over the years, opponents have complained bitterly when the town accepted money for improvements from the Federal Aviation Administration, because taking funds tied the town to the agency for years at a clip. Naysayers saw it as a move towards expansion; supporters saw anything but forward motion on repairs as a move towards total airport closure.

Now, no one's going to be moving on 4-22. McGintee said Monday that he'd asked the FAA to analyze the safety of the landing lane, but officials declined. "I'm really left with no alternative but to shut it down until we can have an assessment done," he concluded.

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