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Voluntary helicopter flight program a failure

REPORTER FILE PHOTO New data was presented at an East Hampton Town Board meeting that showed pilots had ignored a voluntary noise reduction strategy.
New data was presented at an East Hampton Town Board meeting that showed pilots had ignored a voluntary noise reduction strategy.

The sounds have subsided, the traffic has thinned, but the issue of excessive aircraft noise — helicopters in particular — is still coming in loud and clear from East Hampton.

Last week the East Hampton Town Board held a meeting on the issue where data revealed that a voluntary program for pilots to use flight patterns that would reduce racket was an embarrassing failure. Pilots flying over East End communities, including Shelter Island, used the recommended flight patterns only 15 percent of the time.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who attended the meeting, said that the lack of voluntary compliance by pilots was significant since “it’s on the record now. This will be a tough report to attack.”

But Loren Riegelhaupt begs to disagree. Mr. Riegelhaupt, who works for SKDKnickerbocker, an  international public relations firm, and is a spokesman for the Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition, a group that includes helicopter pilots, said some of the data is badly skewed.

“The numbers cited are deeply flawed as the researchers used the old and incorrect routes in 2013 to demonstrate compliance,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said. “The report failed to account for the fact that the routes changed at least twice during the summer of 2013, meaning the report counted an aircraft that complied with the new routes as out of compliance.”

As for noise, Mr. Riegelhaupt said his group takes noise concerns “extremely seriously and will continue to work with communities to find common sense solutions that respond to community concerns and at the same time keep the airport safe and the local economy growing.”

At the board meeting it was reported that  that from January to September this year there were 22,350 take offs and landings at the East Hampton Airport, and during the same time frame there were 22,700 complaints logged. About 15 percent of the complaints came from Shelter Island residents.

The volume of traffic to and from New York City to East Hampton increased dramatically last summer because of an improving economy and also through phone apps and ride sharing, providing cheaper flights to the Hamptons for the weekend and trips back to the city.

East Hampton lost some control over its airport policy several years ago when the town took Federal Aviation Administration 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 types 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 and out of East Hampton.

But when the grant assurances become void December 31, it will be up to the 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.

In August the East Hampton board held a public meeting on the issue that attracted more than 350 people, including a strong contingent of about 30 Shelter Islanders and as many from the North Fork.

Twenty-one elected officials on the town, county and state level also showed up.

At the meeting last week in East Hampton, a “Preliminary Draft Problem Definition” was presented listing alternatives to reducing excessive aircraft noise.

The alternatives ranged from banning aircraft to time-based restrictions to federal imposition of routes.

Supervisor Dougherty spoke during the public comments section of the meeting and asked that one more alternative be included.

He noted that at the Grand Canyon in Arizona certain types of helicopters are regulated and that the same could be done for the East Hampton airport, only allowing aircraft that are technologically more quiet than older model helicopters, for example.

Kathleen Cunningham, a director of the East Hampton-based Quiet Skies Coalition, praised the Town Board for bringing the data to the public.

But she noted that too much emphasis was placed on excessive noise being a lifestyle issue, and not enough on the dangers to the public’s health.

The East Hampton Town Board continues to ask the public for input on the issue at [email protected]