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Groups lobby on fate of East Hampton Airport: September date for possible closing looms

The issue of private helicopters, creating a deafening racket as they fly low over Shelter Island and the North Fork on their way to the East Hampton Airport, is back on the front burner.

The East Hampton Community Alliance, an advocacy group in favor of keeping the airport open, has released a report by EBP, a Boston-based firm, which the Alliance says shows the facility brings in at least $77.5 million a year to South Fork communities and creates 870 jobs.

To help alleviate the noise, which has had communities protesting for years, the Alliance is appealing to the East Hampton Town Board to help develop a so-called  “pilot pledge” as a basis for negotiations to keep the choppers flying.

In September, the Town Board can opt to close the airport or extend its operation with federal funding assurances. 

In a letter to East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Alliance co-founder and treasurer Michael Norbeck this week requested that Mr. Van Scoyoc participate in creating the pilot pledge. According to Alliance Executive Director Erin King Sweeney, such a pledge helped to ease tensions in New Jersey because of noise problems from Teterboro Airport. Noting that East Hampton Airport is unique, Ms. Sweeney said East Hampton couldn’t simply adopt the Teterboro pledge, but a new pledge could be written to cover the situation on the East End.

Alliance co-founder Gianpaolo de Felice said he wants everyone to sit down and talk to see if they can come to a meeting of the minds about the future of the airport. If it closes, it can never reopen, he said.

The pilot pledge means operators of helicopters would strictly abide by routes and elevations for the flights from New York City to East Hampton. Previous agreements to change the routes of the helicopters have failed to satisfy those complaining. One route that was suggested was to have the pilots fly from Manhattan along the South Fork, but that raised concerns about possible interference with flights out of Kennedy Airport. Another solution floated several years ago was to have the helicopters use a route along the North Fork, but instead of cutting across land to East Hampton, to go around Orient Point and back down to the airport.

Many pilots failed to keep to that route, maintaining it cost them more in fuel and time. Ms. Sweeney said that she thought most pilots adhered to the agreement to fly higher, observe curfews and use routes that wouldn’t create constant noise problems. But some “recreational pilots” who don’t belong to a pilot’s association may still ignore agreements, she said.

Pilots know there is a possibility of the airport closing, so this time they are willing to make and keep a pledge, Mr. de Felipe said. He also said that opponents of the airport attribute all aeronautic noise to helicopters and jets flying in and out of the airport when many of the planes are from Kennedy Airport and bound for Europe.

He defended the economic impact study, saying no instructions were given to EBP officials. He believes if the Town Board were to commission its own study, it would come to the same conclusions the Boston firm reached.

Mr. de Felipe first became involved with efforts to keep the airport open after his son had to be airlifted to a hospital. While other landing sites might be found in other communities, on the South Fork, especially during the summer season, heavy fog requires a solid landing site, not simply an open field.

That’s something co-founder and co-director of Say No to KHTO Barry disputes. He taught close to Southampton Hospital for years and saw helicopters carrying patients land in parking lots without problems.

Mr. Raebeck’s organization is adamantly opposed to keeping the airport open. He and his co-founder and co-director, Patricia Currie, argue that it causes unacceptable rates of noise and pollution. The airport site could better be used for such projects as solar and other clean energy projects. They argue that most jobs at the airport are seasonal, part-time, and offer no have no benefits. The types of jobs that could be created with clean energy initiatives would pay well and provide benefits.

They also maintain the number of jobs in South Fork towns wouldn’t change because people would still come to the Hamptons by other means than flying into East Hampton.

Supervisor Van Scoyoc said he hadn’t seen the economic impact study. The Reporter provided it to him Monday evening. He has not yet responded to either the report or the request to work with the Alliance on a pilot pledge.

“The Alliance is aware that noise from the airport affects a limited number of residents negatively and we endeavor to work together for the benefit of the entire community on the East End,” Mr. Norbeck wrote in a letter inviting Mr. Van Scoyoc to participate.

Alliance members have been meeting virtually on Friday mornings to discuss a pilot pledge and would like Mr. Van Scoyoc and perhaps some other Town Board members to join those discussions.

“We’ve reached out to many of the airport stakeholders to develop a pilot pledge” to show commitment and good faith to address neighborhood concerns, Mr. Norbeck said. “It is our belief that all the constituents enthusiastically support a working solution. We are simultaneously working on methodology to validate with data and facts the effectiveness of such a pledge.”

A press release accompanying the economic impact study takes the town to task for what it calls a “campaign to drive the airport into the ground and wait out the clock on federal grant assurances. The story of East Hampton Airport is really one of missed economic opportunities.” 

“The airport would create even more economic benefit, including well paying local jobs, if the town of East Hampton treated the airport as the valuable asset that it is and utilized the capital created by investing accordingly,” the report stated.

Instead, the airport “has been starved of necessary repairs, maintenance and most importantly, vision for years,” according to the report.

The figures in the report are a “conservative assessment” of the negative economic impact that would result if the Town Board opted next September to shut down the airport, according to Ms. Sweeney.

In years past, public officials have appealed to the Federal Aviation Administration to take a role in enforcing routes used by the pilots, but the FAA rejected becoming involved in the situation.

Mr. Raebeck of Say No to KHTO presented an argument to the East Hampton Town Board for closing the airport, saying:

• Principals involved with keeping it open are not local and have vested interests in keeping the site operating.

• The Alliance makes no mention of negative impacts or the huge opposition to the airport.

• The economic impact study fails to accurately reflect a loss to surrounding businesses.

He asked Town Board members to consider that closing the airport is not only economically feasible, but environmentally sound.

Shelter Island Supervisor Gerry Siller, in a recent statement, said while the noise from the helicopters is of concern to his constituents, he worries that closing the East Hampton Airport might bring problems to the town. While the Island bans use of Klenawicus Airport for landings except for emergencies, lack of another airport could bring pressure for pilots to land on the Island.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the economic impact study has “no credibility” and “contains no perceivable independent economic analysis either within its pages or in the index. The comments by one of the Alliance’s members ooze self-serving dishonesty,” he said. While the Alliance claims it is “sensitive to the concerns of the community … that doesn’t square with the facts,” he said.

“They have opposed every single effort to put reasonable restrictions in place that would balance out all interests,” Mr. Russell said. “They hide behind the FAA which is nothing more than a taxpayer-funded lobbyist on their behalf.”

He added, while the study claims 65 jobs the airport directly creates, most are per diem with no benefits or career advancement opportunities.

“One founder suggests the potential for enhancing it by putting a ‘cafe and aviation museum’ there. Well, I guess that makes all the noise worthwhile then,” Mr. Russell said. “They say they hope this study will influence the politicians who are counting votes … but they are insulting the intelligence of the public. The public makes decisions based on facts. Real facts, not the ones bought and paid for by highly self-motivated group.”