Hardy Plumbing
December 07, 2011

Pilots Prefer FAA Funding



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Those who spoke could generally be categorized as two opposing factions: pilots and people who have to listen to the din of their aircraft. Flying fans and folks from both forks have been at odds in recent years, thanks to the increased volume of jet and chopper traffic over the East End.

Pilots made the most noise at town hall last Thursday night during a hearing related to the East Hampton Airport, outnumbering opponents more than two to one.

At issue was whether the town should seek a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to cover the cost of constructing a deer fence around the perimeter of the 600-acre airport.

Opponents are loath to take federal money, fearing it eliminates the town's ability to control airport operations with an eye toward quelling noise from ever-increasing numbers of helicopters. They argue grant assurances from prior financial collaborations with the FAA are due to expire and a new agreement will extend ties to the feds for years to come.

Supporters of the move question the notion of local control, arguing the FAA "rules the skies," grant assurances or not. The fence and other improvements to the facility, such as runway maintenance, are sorely needed for safety purposes, those with aviation interests insist.

Although the hearing last Thursday night was supposed to be about the deer fencing, speakers more often offered opinions relating to the airport and FAA funding as a whole.

There was a standing room only crowd, with people spilling out into the foyer at historic town hall as the hearing began. It would go on for close to three hours with over 50 individuals offering input from the podium. Not counting the town's hired experts and airport manager Jim Brundige, 36 people, almost all of them with aviation interests, spoke in favor of taking the funding.

To start the hearing Brundige and town-hired consultants, Dennis Yapp and attorney Peter Kirsch, gave an overview of the history of the airport, the design of the proposed fence and East Hampton's current status with the FAA.

Brundige noted the airport's $1.5 million surplus is "not nearly enough" to cover the cost of necessary improvements such as the fence and a seasonal control tower. There isn't a resort community in all of the United States that doesn't have its own airport, Brundige declared. They all accept federal funds and they all have control towers, he informed.

Brundige displayed photos of a recent deer strike at the airport, noting deer and turkey "roam free" on runways at dusk, stating, "It's a wonder no one's been killed."

Kirsch, who's been retained to advise the town on airport matters, kicked off a segment that could be called "dueling legal opinions," by stating the town can "never" wrest local control from the FAA because of federal law. The only way the town could ever achieve local control is by totally closing the facility, he said.

Attorney Jeff Bragman disagrees. He represents the Committee To Stop Airport Expansion in a current lawsuit over environmental review of adopted airport plans, and argues the town can, indeed, gain local control. In Bragman's view, local control means the ability to set hours of operation, set a curfew, and even ban helicopters. Case law from the US. Circuit Court of Appeals supports his view, the attorney asserted. Additionally he said in documents related to the suit the town has admitted it can't exert local control due to the FAA grant assurances.

There is no deer emergency at the airport, strikes have been few, Bragman pointed out. He disparaged the suggestion that the town will be able to mitigate noise through the use of a tower dictating flight paths. That would simply move the problem from one area to another. "I have no interest in putting traffic that sounds like the attack scene from Apocalypse Now over my neighbor's house," he said. Finally, he complained about the notion of town officials putting the desires of "ultra luxury travelers" before the quality of life of 20,000 to 40,000 people affected by aircraft noise.

Tom Twomey and John Shea, both attorneys, and pilots, disagreed. "Every single pilot I know agrees [helicopter noise must be mitigated]" said Shea. Securing the federal grants to help finance the tower said Twomey, is the best and fastest way to reduce helicopter noise by next summer. The pair was among a number of speakers who urged swift action.

Two more attorneys did not. David Gruber and Pat Trunzo, both members of the Committee To Stop Airport Expansion, litigants and in Trunzo's case a former town board member, argued against rapid action. Like other speakers, they want the town to pay to put the tower up and see how it works.

Simply put, the airport cannot exist without FAA grants, Margie Saurenman, vice president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, asserted. She said it would be "fiscally reckless" for the town to use the airport's small surplus for the control tower. Her sentiment was shared by a number of speakers, including Kenneth Lee, who noted most municipalities work hard to get funding from the FAA. Take the federal dollars that other municipalities would beg for, he urged.

Others in favor of the funding spoke of the importance of the airport in terms of providing jobs and bolstering the town's economy. Shouldn't we do all we can to promote one of the economic drivers of the town, Rod Davidson queried rhetorically. Margaret Turner of the East Hampton Business Alliance spoke of the airport as a valuable asset that needs to be maintained in the best possible condition, and former town councilwoman Diana Weir submitted a report outlining the economic impact of aviation on communities. Britton Bistrian pointed out that for many visitors, the airport is the gateway to East Hampton.

More like gateway to misery, to hear some residents tell it. Barry Raebeck, chair of the Quiet Skies Coalition, wore black, he said, because he's in mourning for the destruction of the rural quality of East Hampton.

Dan Rudansky of the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee read a resolution from his group stating support for discontinuing FAA agreements. He reported air traffic was recently re-routed over his community. Patricia Currie complained she and her neighbors built their homes in Noyac years ago "nowhere near the airport." Recent re-routing has sent the noisy traffic over homes where Southampton Town residents "suffer every day." Curry noted that if people in Noyac could vote in East Hampton "certain people" on the town board wouldn't be sitting there.

Taking another perspective, however, Eric Salzmann of North Sea offered, "If you had a control tower 10 years ago, we wouldn't be having this debate today."

While some suggested Gruber, Trunzo and others want to shutter the airport entirely, Robert Wolfram from Sag Harbor said he has yet to meet anybody who wants to close the facility.

Some speakers didn't espouse ardent opinions on either side, but merely asked questions. One wondered what types of landing fees pilots pay and another wanted to know if taking FAA money would mean larger aircraft could use the airport.

As the hearing drew to a close Supervisor Bill Wilkinson noted the absence of a passionate advocate who's spoken about aircraft noise repeatedly. Frank Dalene, the supervisor reported, had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital.

Finally, Martin Drew was the sole speaker to focus on the actual construction of the deer fence . . . Remember? The purpose of the hearing? He said he'd like the board to move forward with the project so he can bid on it.

kmerrill@indyeastend.com

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