Suffolk Closeup: Noisemakers

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

Three separate meetings were held last week, in Peconic, on Shelter Island and in Bridgehampton, all packed with people outraged by the noise made by commercial helicopters carrying passengers back and forth between Manhattan and East Hampton Airport.

Once a quiet, country air field, it has become a hub for choppers carrying those paying $500 a ticket and up. The helicopter traffic in and out of the town-owned field has increased by 40 percent so far this year.
Shelter Island has become a doormat for choppers flying to and from East Hampton Airport as they “transition” to land at the field and when they depart from it. But change could be coming.

The East Hampton Town Board under Republican control was highly supportive of aviation interests using the airport. Especially enthusiastic was Councilman Dominick Stanzione, its “liaison” with the airport. Mr. Stanzione, repeatedly labeled a puppet of these interests by the Quiet Skies Coalition, lost his seat last year with the noise issue a central issue in the election campaign. A Democratic majority, under former Councilman Larry Cantwell, took office. It has promised to take action regarding noise.

There was great concern that the lame duck GOP majority, before leaving office, would sign a new 20-year contract with the Federal Aviation Administration to provide financial support for the field. This would have continued to hamstring the town in exercising local control of the field under a provision of accepting FAA support.

In the face of intense opposition from the Quiet Skies Coalition, based in Wainscott, and others fighting noise emanating from aircraft — especially helicopters — using East Hampton Airport, the GOP majority left office without a new contract with the FAA.

That’s why State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, at the meeting in Bridgehampton, stressed that with East Hampton no longer subject to FAA oversight beginning January 1, the town could then establish “curfews, slots, limit the number of flights.” Mr. Thiele emphasized “this is a regional issue, an environmental issue, a quality-of-life issue, an economic issue.” It’s “not good enough to re-arrange routes.” That’s like “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty, following a “standing room only” meeting on Shelter Island was among the many elected representatives at the Bridgehampton gathering. He said the view of his constituents is a variant of the call in the movie “Network”: “Shelter Island can’t take it anymore!” he declared.

A key problem with the FAA when it comes to airport noise is that it has long been in the business of promoting air traffic. Although ostensibly a regulatory agency, like many federal regulatory agencies it takes a boosterish stance toward the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

There was an FAA official at the meeting in Bridgehampton who addressed those present with sympathy.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mark Guiod stood and explained that two years ago he began as manager of the FAA’s New York Terminal Radar Approach Control and that he received “an earful” about the problem in Peconic and now in Bridgehampton. He stated that “what you’re experiencing shouldn’t happen.”

What would be the best thing for the East Hampton Town Board to do?

Eliminate the problem.

As Barry Raebeck of Wainscott said, “Shifting helicopter routes does not solve the problem of noise pollution.” That’s what has been done for several years now — spreading the noise assault rather than eliminating it — and meanwhile the traffic has expanded. “The way to solve the problem is to eliminate commercial operations at East Hampton Airport,” Raebeck said.

When I arrived at the Bridgehampton meeting I sat next to a former student of mine from my Investigative Reporting class at Southampton College, Charlot Taylor. I had not seen her for over two decades. She immediately said that her aunt, Charlotte Niles, started the East Hampton Airport in 1946. She repeated the story when it came time for her to speak at the meeting, relating how Ms. Niles had just returned from being a pilot during World War II for the Army Air Corps.

Her aunt, declared Ms. Taylor, “would be horrified” with what the airport has become. Ms. Taylor told of how she, like so many others, is victimized by the East Hampton Airport. Helicopters fly “100 feet over” her home in East Hampton “from 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 at night … It’s like living next to a MASH unit in Vietnam. I’d like to see a ban on helicopters,” she told those assembled.

Yes.

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