Hardy Plumbing
December 14, 2011

The Matter Of The Airport


There is no question that a significant portion of our populace, though a minority, suffers because of the noise generated by the stream of helicopters particularly during "the season" when they come and go at all hours.

This is an indisputable fact, and the aggrieved parties are not just around the airport; folks in North Sea, Noyac, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and even the North Fork have complained.

Experts say the air-shattering sound of large jets has abated of late, as the industry has moved to less-intrusive planes, and those wealthy enough to own them insist on the newest toy, which thankfully is quite a bit quieter.

The debate isn't helped by pronouncements that East Hampton is "a major metropolitan air traffic hub" or that at any given time "Thousands of planes fill the sky" above the town. Those silly arguments take away from the real distress the airport has caused some people, and how their quality of life is ruined because of the helicopter noise.

They are the aggrieved parties in this controversy and their discomfort must be addressed.

Not all airport "opponents" – for lack of a better word – have a right to complain. Despite claiming otherwise, there are those who bought cheap because of the proximity to the airport, and even developers who will benefit financially should the airport curtail activities or close altogether.

But even for them, traffic and noise have increased over the years – what was once tolerable no longer is.

The group of local, passionate flyers love their planes. Yes, it's a good deal. Yet no better than gun enthusiasts who have a sweetheart lease at the nearby gun club, or Sag Harbor residents docked at the local yacht club for relative peanuts, or even children playing in a state-of-the-art municipal schoolyard. We are a small, resort town, we have a wealthy base of homeowners, and the quality of life is good here.

The idea that the airport should close, as suggested by some critics, is preposterous and myopic and a mind-boggling overreaction.

The airport is responsible for over 90 jobs and pumps close to $10 million into the local economy. These are not numbers picked out of the air by proponents but figures from a bi-partisan state study.

More important though, is the user group of these helicopters and new jets – these are wealthy second homeowners that fuel our luxury real estate market, keep prices up and taxes low. If they can't get in and out in a hurry – much like Aspen or Martha's Vineyard – they'll go elsewhere. But how far we should bend to accommodate is at the heart of this debate.

We need an airport, and that's why there is one here, and it predates all its enemies. Our job is to alleviate the noise that is bothering some of our citizens and to keep it safe.

The argument that we shouldn't use federal funds, though a noble idea, is hard to get behind. Otherwise it will cost the public money – even if landing fees are raised. We can't help but think "opponents" are angling for the day when townsfolk, tired of paying to keep the airport up to speed, start turning against it and begin thinking about closure. That would be an economic disaster.

The current town board, in a bipartisan unanimous vote, is set to take more FAA money, which will lock us in to another 20 years of assurances, specifically that we won't use noise as a reason to limit traffic. We're not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this rush to erect deer fencing all of a sudden is a bit of a reach. Most of us can recall hunting deer in those parts decades ago and there was a huge herd then. They have always managed, with rare exceptions, to avoid planes.

A control tower planned for next season may alleviate some of the noise problems. So might re-routing the flight paths the helicopters follow, though we'd in essence be moving them around the sky rather than decreasing the number that come in.

Without further FAA funding come 2014 we could attempt to put some restrictions on the helicopter traffic. But if the moves causes litigation – and it likely will – taxpayers get caught holding the bill.

Many of the people at the recent public hearing were local pilots; most agree they are not part of the problem. What would happen if an agreement were forged that local-based pilots would always be exempt from landing fees. Would they then drop their opposition to taking federal money?

Unfortunately, the two sides are polarized to the point that suspicion rules. The real players, and their motivations, have been carefully shielded from the public eye. Suffice it to say it's always about money.

The town will never be able to fully control helicopter traffic without an extensive legal battle. We must identify the beleaguered parties – those who legitimately suffer from the noise, and measure exactly how often and how loud.

That will eliminate those pretending to be aggrieved but acting with another agenda entirely.

We must reach out to helicopter operators to voluntarily adhere to a set of guidelines – and if they don't, there are tools in place to make their lives miserable.

If we can do those two things, the FAA becomes a source of funding and not Big Brother forcing us to cope with ever-increasing numbers of aircraft.

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