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Public to weigh in on chopper ban

REPORTER FILE PHOTO The East Hampton Town Board is hosting a public hearing Thursday afternoon on proposed aircraft restrictions.
The East Hampton Town Board is hosting a public hearing on proposed aircraft restrictions.

Update: The East Hampton Town Board announced Thursday morning that the scheduled public hearing for this afternoon on proposed airport restrictions has been postponed due to the weather until Thursday, March 12.

The East Hampton Town Board is expecting a big crowd  for a public hearing on proposed aircraft restrictions at the town’s airport.

The venue for the meeting on low-flying and noisy aircraft — especially helicopters — is a TV studio, rather than the regular board meeting room. The need for more space is due to an issue that has united residents in opposition not only from the Hamptons, but from the North Fork and the Island as well.

Last August, at another public airing of the noise issue, more than 350 people packed the same space, LTV Studios in Wainscott, to vent grievances.

The public will be invited to weigh in on legislation the East Hampton Town board has crafted that would:
• ban all helicopters on weekends during the summer season;
• impose a mandatory curfew for all aircraft from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.;
• extend the curfew on what the board has determined “noisy” aircraft from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m.; and
• limit operations of noisy aircraft of one trip, either arrival or departure, per week during the summer season.

A vote on the proposed law will be scheduled later this month.

But on Tuesday, proponents of the legislation were hit by a setback that gave ammunition to those opposed to restrictions. It was announced that a report outlining financial impacts to the town from the proposed restrictions would not be completed by Thursday’s hearing. Members of the East Hampton Town Board’s Budget and Finance Advisory Committee, charged with making the report, could not reach consensus.

Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for The Friends of East Hampton Airport Coalition (FEHAC), a group that includes helicopter pilots, aircraft companies and some local businesses, released a statement early Tuesday afternoon castigating the board: “The finance committee’s refusal to sign off on this deeply misguided proposal confirms the true economic hazards of the plan and the Town Board’s blatant disregard for these risks. The airport’s future and the town’s financial health is on the line and when you can’t get your own budget committee to sign off on a plan, shouldn’t it give pause and force everyone to reassess?”

Kathleen Cunningham, a director of the East Hampton-based Quiet Skies Coalition, responded that the airports’s finances were all on the public record and the reason there was a lack of consensus by the finance committee had to do with political manuevering  and not facts.

Ms. Cunningham said Monday that her organization is “profoundly grateful for the progress the board has made with these recommendations. It will take care of 75 percent of the noise impacts for people and we’ll receive substantial relief.”

FEHAC is preparing lawsuits if the board votes to implement the restrictions. Mr. Riegelhaupt said earlier this week that the board’s action not only would be illegal, but trigger an economic disaster for the Town of East Hampton.

“If enacted, the Town Board’s recommendations would essentially shut down the airport during the summer,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said. “The Town has also taken this severe and significant step without the FAA’s consultation or input.

Mr. Riegelhaupt added that East Hampton’s 2015 budget relies heavily on an increase in air traffic. “The proposed restrictions would cut traffic by 31 percent,” the spokesman said, “creating a significant budget deficit and forcing property tax increases.”

Mr. Riegelhaupt’s mention of the Federal Aviation Administration refers to the East Hampton Town Board’s contention that it can take action because contracts with the federal agency, which controlled the airport, expired on December 31, 2014. East Hampton had taken federal money in 2001 for airport infrastructure and other expenses, but the federal dollars came with quid pro quos in the form of “grant assurances.”

This meant the airport could be open to aircraft traffic around the clock throughout the year, and the town could not discriminate against types of planes or helicopters using the facility.

Not accepting federal money when the calendar turned to 2015 means, the town believes, it can now impose restrictions.

Residents of the East End have complained for years about helicopters and other aircraft buzzing their communities — especially during the summer – by chartered flights from New York City to East Hampton. But the issue reached a crescendo last year, when, according to airport records, from January to September 2014 there were 22,350 take offs and landings at the East Hampton Airport. Over the same time frame there were 22,700 complaints logged about excessive noise. About 15 percent of the complaints — or 3,400 — came from Shelter Island residents.

A group of Shelter Islanders, including Supervisor Jim Dougherty — a leader in the fight against low-flying aircraft buzzing the Island — and Councilmen Peter Reich and Paul Shepherd  are scheduled to attend Thursday’s meeting.

The special East Hampton Town Board meeting will be held at the LTV Studios at 75 Industrial Road, Wainscott, on Thursday, March 12, at 4:30 p.m.