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Hundreds pack helicopter meeting in East Hampton

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | More than 350 people packed the LTV Studios in Wainscott Thursday evening for a public hearing on proposed East Hampton airport restrictions.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO |
More than 350 people packed the LTV Studios in Wainscott Thursday evening for a public hearing on proposed East Hampton airport restrictions.

A public hearing Thursday evening debating the question of restricting aircraft flights over the East End took almost four hours with 70 speakers trooping to the podium.

More than 350 people attended the East Hampton Town Board meeting in a TV studio in Wainscott to air out the pros and cons of proposed local legislation, which if enacted, would dramatically curb flights into and out of East Hampton Airport.

The speakers were equally divided between those in favor of the legislation to stop excessive noise from the aircraft, especially helicopters buzzing over their communities, and those opposed because it would kill local businesses and put people out of work.

With a spike in air traffic at the airport — from January to September 2014 there were 22,350 take offs and landings — and a marked increase of recorded complaints from residents, the East Hampton board’s proposed legislation would ban all helicopters on weekends during the summer, impose mandatory curfews on all flights and extend curfews and limit operations for what the board has determined to be “noisy” aircraft.

Ten elected officials commended the board for taking steps to improve the quality of life by reducing noise. Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty praised the members for crafting “thoughtful, balanced, courageous and enforceable” legislation. He noted that he was a “believer in the free enterprise system” but those opposed to the legislation, including business interests, “have to listen to the community speaking very, very loudly.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the board had “acted with transparency and inclusion. Stay the course. Enact this legislation.”

Riverhead Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio also commended the board for drafting the legislation, and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski said excessive noise was a regional issue.

“I represent Fishers Island to Wading River, otherwise known as the flight path,” Mr. Krupski said.

He was echoed by  many other speakers when he urged the board “not to be bullied” by those who threatened legal consequences if the law is passed.

A vote on the proposed legislation is expected later this month or in early April.

Speakers at the meeting disputed their opponent’s statistics on economic impacts, noise analysis studies and the actual number of excessive noise objections from residents. Last year the airport recorded 22,700 complaints, but Bruno Schrek, an East Hampton resident and pilot, brought charts to prove, he claimed, that 100 people were responsible for 90 percent of all complaints registered.

When Irving Taylor named people who had called to complain about noise numerous times, Island resident Tom Cugliani spoke from the audience that these were personal attacks and shouldn’t be allowed.

Island resident Jim Colligan said “no one had to do a study,” just come to Silver Beach and listen.

Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, a pilot’s organization fighting the proposed legislation, said proponents of the law were involved in “a smear campaign” against his group and that noise studies done by the town “were deeply flawed.”

Several local business owners agreed and implored the board to drop the proposed law, claiming it would severely affect their livelihoods. Local business owner Jonathan Sabin said that wealthy people were the engines driving the East End economy; they would go elsewhere if there was no helicopter access and it would be “dangerous to enrage that demographic.”

But other speakers noted that people flocked to the Hamptons long before there were convenient helicopter flights.

Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University, cited a study by the school that revenues to the town would crater with restrictions on aircraft. The study Mr. Moss referred to was funded by businesses at the airport, those that use the facilities and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council.

With speakers mainly debating economics, Marie Domenici of Mattituck said people were losing sight of the main issue — the right to regulate environmental impacts. “We live in communities where there are codes and guidelines we all have to comply with,” Ms. Domeneici said. “My concern is not about NIMBYism, it’s about quality of life … if I want to burn garbage in my back yard, that would certainly not be allowed, but when helicopters fly over our homes and pollute our environment there’s no accountability.”

People representing communities that might be affected if there were restrictions at the East Hampton Airport raised one new issue. Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, although supporting the proposed law, cautioned the board about “unforeseen consequences.” She noted that her town had two facilities, Gabreskie Airport in Westhampton and a heliport in Southampton village, which might be an easy option for helicopter companies to bring charter flights to the area if East Hampton banned them.

Jeremy Samuelson of the Montauk Citizens Advisory Committee said that in the board’s report on the issue, Montauk’s airport was not mentioned, and this could also be an option for flights in and out of the region.

“If you squeeze the balloon it will bulge out in another place,” Mr. Samuelson said.

East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell said after the meeting that the board was doing a “diversion study” to address concerns and it would be released within a week.

The board left the public comment period open until March 20.

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