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Residents pack three public forums on helicopter noise

PETER REICH PHOTO | Kathleen Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition  standing at right, addressing a packed Town Hall meeting room yesterday.

PETER REICH PHOTO | Kathleen Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition, standing at right, addressing a packed Town Hall meeting room yesterday.

Residents from three East End communities voted with their feet on Monday and Tuesday when more than 500 people attended three public meetings to stop low flying aircraft from buzzing their homes.

In Southold Monday night 200 people peppered Federal Aviation Administration officials about the barrage of noise this summer — up more than 40 percent over last year, according to several reports — and Tuesday afternoon the Shelter Island Town Board held a standing room only work session to hear audience members complain bitterly about the racket they’ve been forced to endure.

Later Tuesday evening, at the Noyac Civic Council meeting, another SRO audience of more than 200 crowded into the Bridgehampton Community Center to hear elected representatives on the federal, state and local level address the problem and give a panel of FAA officials another round of pointed questioning.

The focus of all three meetings was the East Hampton Airport, where the lion’s share of traffic to and from New York City occurs, with pilots flying over East End communities. The problem has exploded this summer with the rise of outfits such as Blade, offering relatively inexpensive fares for the well to do heading for Hampton’s weekends.

Several Islanders made the trip to Bridgehampton, including Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who spoke briefly, receiving a strong round of applause by noting that several years ago the Island had banned all helicopter landings and takeoffs except for emergencies.

“We sacrificed luxury and convenience for our East End lifestyle,” he added, but with the continuing air traffic buzzing in to East Hampton Airport, “Shelter Island can’t take it anymore!”

Beyond the outrage vented at the three public forums, some strategies to end the problem emerged.

“This is a political problem with a political solution, ” Kathleen Cunningham told the Shelter Island Town Board. Ms. Cunningham is chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, an East Hampton-based advocacy group.

If pressure is brought to bear on the East Hampton Town Board, which will begin regulating key aspects of its airport policy on January 1, the town can put an end to the excessive incoming and outgoing traffic and even ban certain kinds of aircraft, Ms. Cunningham said.

East Hampton lost some control over its airport policy several years go when the town took FAA grants, mostly to upgrade infrastructure. The town signed “grant assurances” with the FAA, and part of that agreement was keeping the airport open to traffic around the clock throughout the year, and not to discriminate against the type of aircraft using the facility.

As a result of abandoning its rights in the agreement, the door has been open to helicopter and other aircraft companies to maximize their services for clients flying in to East Hampton.

But when the grant assurances become void December 31, it will be to the current East Hampton Town Board to decide to accept or reject more federal funds for airport improvements, and also debate limits for aircraft companies and services on airport use.

Ms. Cunningham said East Hampton could impose reasonable operating hours, curfews and other limitations on aircraft services, including the size of aircraft using the airport.

It looks as if the makeup of the East Hampton Town Board indicates it could act to form a new, noise-free policy, she said, and asked the Shelter Island Town Board to pass a resolution urging the East Hampton Town Board not to take any FAA funding. Supervisor Jim Dougherty said he thought his colleagues would be agreeable to pass what is called “a memorializing resolution.”

Ms. Cunningham also urged Islanders to attend an East Hampton Town Board meeting on Thursday, August 21 to let members know the problem in East Hampton is a regional issue.

Southampton Town Board Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who was at the Bridgehampton meeting, said she and her colleagues were set to pass a memorializing resolution on the issue at a special session this week. She also joined Ms. Cunningham and many of the 22 speakers at that meeting urging people to show support for anti-noise legislation at East Hampton’s board meeting next week.

Councilwoman Chris Lewis and Councilman Peter Reich at their meeting asked if there could be an effort made to get Islanders to the meeting in East Hampton, with Mr. Reich suggesting town buses could be used.

At both the Shelter Island and Bridgehampton meetings, routes taken by pilots was debated, with many voices saying the issue is irrelevant, since East Hampton Airport is landlocked and some communities will have to be affected by noise. Add to that the rights pilots have to decide which route to take when safety, weather or fuel concerns dictate the flight pattern and routes can be discarded. As Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said at the Island meeting, if you squeeze a balloon, the air has to escape somewhere.

Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said at the Bridgehampton meeting that negotiations were still ongoing with the FAA on routes, with he and Senator Charles Schumer meeting with federal officials next week.

The consensus at the Bridgehampton meeting was that a strong policy restricting flights and the aircraft size was the solution.

But Mr. Thiele noted at the Island work session that if that tack is taken, get ready “for war,” since aircraft service companies are already preparing a lawsuit if restrictions on them are imposed and they’ve been stocking a war chest for the litigation.

Several people in Bridgehampton noted that the companies’ strategy in a suit against East Hampton would be based on violating free trade statutes. But Ms. Cunningham said a solid defense by residents would come from a noise assessment study in the works showing the negative health and environmental impacts on the community, as well as the loss of property values created by the constant din from low flying aircraft turning a once desirable area for vacation and second homeowners into a nightmare of noise.

Mr. Dougherty at the Island work session noted that residents could use a constitutional gambit of “an unjust taking of property without compensation” since the aircraft services are seriously depressing property values

It was important to register complaints for a permanent record for a court case, several people advised, and also to pack the East Hampton Town Board meeting as another piece of evidence of communities responding to a crisis.