Suffolk Closeup: Time to hold the line on noise

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

“Yet another summer of unrelenting, health-threatening aircraft noise?”

That was the heading of a statement from the Quiet Skies Coalition as Long Island’s biggest contributor to noise pollution ratcheted  up again — helicopter traffic in and out of East Hampton’s airport.

“As the thunderous roar of aircraft overhead demonstrates, the Town of East Hampton is currently unable to enforce its reasonable and legally adopted access restrictions to the East Hampton Airport to protect the public from noise,” stated the QSC as the Memorial Day weekend arrived along with the noisy choppers.

East Hampton’s Town Board voted last month for a set of rules aimed at quelling the chopper racket, set to be in effect by the Memorial Day weekend. But aviation interests brought a lawsuit that held up its implementation.

The rules are measured and eminently sensible. They were adopted after months of intense study and deliberations that included public hearings. They will ban all traffic in and out of the field between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. (common at many airports in residential locations); prohibit take-offs and landings from noon Thursday to noon Monday between May 1 and September 30 of aircraft defined as noisy by FAA sound standards; and limit in these months one round-trip a week for any aircraft so defined.

There was to be a fourth rule: a ban on helicopter traffic between Thursday and Monday from May 1 to September 30 but the board blinked on this — faced with the dubious claim that it would cause choppers to “divert” to other eastern Long Island fields.

Even Jeff Smith of the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council noted that “you could be looking at a two-hour drive [east] after you land” at the other big eastern Suffolk airport, Gabreski in Westhampton. If chopper traffic substantially increased at the few other smaller sites, such as the tiny Southampton Village heliport on Meadow Lane, there’d be swift action to stop it.

“It was a courageous first step but more needs to be done,” said Supervisor Jim Dougherty of the East Hampton Town Board move. Mr. Dougherty, who is also chairman of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association, was present for the vote. “I was disappointed that the fourth proposal was not acted upon,” he added.

Shelter Island and, of course, East Hampton and adjacent Southampton, as well as the North Fork, are all especially hard hit by the chopper din. But all of Long Island is impacted as the helicopters carrying those paying $500 for a one-way ticket between East Hampton and Manhattan rumble overhead. It’s become a lucrative business for chopper operators, the chief plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The other player in the drama is the FAA. Its outrageous stance of supporting the granting of a temporary restraining order sought by the aviation interests is being challenged by the new U.S. representative for eastern and much of central Long Island, Lee Zeldin of Shirley.

The FAA has long been a model of a “captured” regulatory agency, meaning a bureaucracy that’s supposed to be a watchdog but instead is a lapdog of the industry it’s charged to regulate. Congressman Zeldin declared: “I am extremely disappointed by the seeming reversal of the FAA’s long-standing position that they would not oppose the Town of East Hampton’s effort to protect quality of life and reduce noise.” Perhaps as vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Mr. Zeldin will have some clout with the FAA.

Meanwhile, as an alternative to the chopper flights, two companies in coordination with the Hampton Jitney, have begun running high-speed ferries from Manhattan, New Jersey and Connecticut, to and from Port Jefferson where a Jitney connection can be made.

Shelter Island, notes Supervisor Dougherty, banned helicopter traffic in 2007 with the exception of emergency flights. “It was a quality of life issue,” he said. “We made a tough choice.”

So has the Town of East Hampton, which needs to hold fast against the aviation forces and their vested financial interests.

Meanwhile, the Quiet Skies Coalition, based in Wainscott, and individual organizations battling the racket, are calling for people to keep up the fight. “Hang in there,” said Kathleen Cunningham, the coalition’s chairperson. A menu for action is featured on its website at quietskiescoalition.org.

“This is just the start of the season,” noted Elena Loreto, president of the Noyac Civic Council, and Barry Holden, its point person on the chopper noise situation, in an email last week. They credit Mr. Zeldin with a “strong stand” and ask, “Where are Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand on this quality of life issue? … Remember, they work for us.”

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