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Dougherty: ‘David vs. Goliath’ battle on chopper noise

REPORTER FILE PHOTO|  Strategies are forming to end excessive aircraft noise. One South Fork advocate is calling for a political solution.
Strategies are forming to end excessive aircraft noise. One South Fork advocate is calling for a political solution.

There are different opinions about summer helicopter traffic over the Island and other East End communities, but almost everyone is in agreement on one point — they’re all hopping mad.

Everyone, that is, except those who charter the helicopters to take them from New York City and Westchester County to the East Hampton Airport at the beginning of summer weekends and buzz them home on Sunday evenings, nights and Monday mornings.

Aircraft noise has been a problem for the last several years, but this summer has been different. “It’s off the charts,” said Kathleen Cunningham, chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, an East Hampton advocacy organization. “Everyone’s hair is on fire.”

Peter Boody, noise abatement officer at the East Hampton Airport, has said the number of complaints fielded by his office this summer is “through the roof.”

Those numbers are sobering, with 810 complaints logged from Shelter Island residents this month compared to 54 in July 2013, and more than 4,000 complaints last month from all East End communities.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty said this week that pressure has to be brought to bear to end the onslaught of sound.

“Several years ago the Town Board took a giant, courageous step, adopting a law banning helicopter takeoffs and landings on Shelter Island, other than EMS and some insignificant, legally required grandfathering,” Mr. Dougherty said. “Residents of Shelter Island have accepted this loss of convenience and luxury to help preserve our unique Island atmosphere. How patently unfair, then, to have constant helicopters from the glamorous Hamptons, which obviously has opted for luxury and convenience at any cost, flying out of East Hampton Airport and heading north towards Shelter Island rather than south over East Hampton to the Atlantic Ocean. All flights out of East Hampton Airport should head south to the ocean, period.”

Mr. Dougherty added that a plan of action must be taken.

“We must fight this David-Goliath battle at the grass roots and governing level and failing all, in the courts,” he said. “I urge everyone to come to the Tuesday, August 12 work session at 1 p.m. when I have invited Kathy Cunningham of the Quiet Skies Coalition and a tireless supporter in our battle against the big money — East Hampton Airport and the Town of East Hampton are swimming in dough from these helicopter flights — to report on the current status and, most importantly, our next steps to meet this menace to our Shelter Island lifestyle, including preparing for that evening’s Noyac Civic Council meeting on the issue.”

That meeting, which will include Representative Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., August 12, in the Bridgehampton Community Center, 585 Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike.

“It’s imperative we have a large Shelter Island turnout,” Mr. Dougherty said.

The origins of the problem go back more than 20 years, when East Hampton took Federal Aviation Administration grants, mostly to upgrade infrastructure at the airport. The town signed, “grant assurances” with the FAA, and part of those agreements was to keep the airport open almost around the clock throughout the year, and not to discriminate against the type of aircraft landing or taking off.

Ms. Cunningham and others have said these grant assurances meant the town abandoned its rights as proprietor of the airport. By not being able to control what aircraft use the airport, large crafts, including helicopters that make enormous amounts of noise, have free rein to come and go.

Setting routes, which was not part of the grant assurances, but which are set by airport officials and the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council, are not the problem, Ms. Cunningham said.

“With designated routes, all you’re doing is deciding into which of your neighbors’ yards you want to toss your garbage,” she said.

Restricting the size of aircraft and the noise they produce plus enforceable curfews are the beginning of an end to the problem, Ms. Cunningham added.

There might be a political solution in the wings. All rights as proprietor of the East Hampton Airport return to the town on January 1, 2015 when the grant assurances become void. It will then be up to the current 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.

In a statement released last spring, the Quiet Skies Coalition said, “Beginning January 1, 2015, the town can impose reasonable, non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory hours of operations, curfews and other access limitations in order to protect the community from … airport noise.”