East Hampton resumes work on airport master plan


With the aid of computerized financial models and a laundry list of improvements and equipment, the Town Board resumed work on the promised master plan for the town-owned East Hampton Airport last week. The board’s goal is to decide what options to have their consultant include in the final plan.

At a day-long work session on Wednesday, April 23, the board looked at the costs of various options for the future configuration of runways, the costs of needed improvements, possible income sources and how far airport revenue can go toward paying for any work without the need for federal funding.

While a small group of pilots and residents looked on, board members indicated that they preferred to reduce the number of runways at the airport from the current three to two—the 4,000-foot east-west main runway, the longest, known as 10-28, and a secondary runway running southwest-northeast, called 4-22, which small-plane pilots say is crucial in the breezy summer months when the wind is often out of the southwest.

The third runway, running nearly north-south and known as 16-34, should be converted into taxiway or additional space for aircraft parking, board members agreed.

Those choices would mean the airport would need at least $11 million worth of repairs and improvements. The largest expenses would be repaving runway 4-22, which has been closed since 2004 because its surface is badly cracked, and the aprons outside the terminal. Repaving runway 4-22 is projected to cost $4 million and the aprons another $2 million.

The main runway and parallel taxiway also need some $650,000 in crack repairs and the airport terminal needs a new manager’s operating room to provide better visibility of the airport tarmac during the busy season.

The board only perfunctorily discussed the option of running a seasonal control tower, which some have said would be an important tool in reducing noise on surrounding residential neighborhoods because controllers could require pilots to avoid certain areas. It is estimated to cost about $400,000 a year to operate. There is no control tower at the airport now.

To meet these and other operating expenses, the town can draw from landing fees, rents charged to tenants of the light-industrial properties along the airport’s fringe and potentially the sale of some undeveloped town-owned property adjacent to the airport.

Airport manager Jim Brundige told the board that doubling the current landing fees is a reasonable possibility and the elimination of runway 16-34 would open up a new portion of the airport property to commercial development that is not possible now because of safety buffers.

But the income of the airport, even with the increased fees, would still fall well short of covering the costs of the needed improvements, even if spread out over a decade or more, he said. With fees doubled, the town would be able afford carrying out three of nine needed projects by 2020 without running a deficit. The paving of runway 4-22 could not be covered by airport revenues alone for nearly 20 years, he said.

Only occasionally mentioned at Wednesday’s meeting, but implicit in the discussion of the airport’s financing, was the possibility of turning to the Federal Aviation Administration for airport grants to fund the needed improvements. The FAA would pay 90 percent of the cost of any improvements, Mr. Brundige said.

“If I went to the FAA today and said we need to pave 4-22 … they would give us 90 percent of the cost immediately and New York State would kick in another 5 percent,” Mr. Brundige said in an interview last Friday. “We could have it all done by 2010 or 2012.”

Drawing on funds from the FAA has been a contentious topic because federal funding comes with requirements for the operation of the airport, primarily involving safety and fair access. Critics of the airport, and the noise it creates, have argued that, without the federal grant assurances the town currently has on the books for previous grants, the town would be free to limit the aircraft that use its runways and impose a curfew for landing planes.

But the specter of federal grant assurances is overwrought, Mr. Brundige argued. Most of the assurances are safety based and not something the town would not agree with anyway; noise restrictions proponents have called for, such as a curfew on late-night landings, would make little difference even if they could be strictly enforced, which would be nearly impossible, he claimed.

“It’s crazy to think you can run an airport without federal funds,” Mr. Brundige said in his office at the airport on Friday. “If we give up federal funding, I don’t know how we would do anything.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Supervisor Bill McGintee hunted for a way to make needed improvements that wouldn’t require taking FAA funds—but he didn’t rule out the possibility. If the town can find a way, by virtue of the new master plan, to address the noise concerns of residents and the safety concerns of pilots and the airport’s management, then the FAA’s grant assurances may be of little concern, he said.

“The decision we’re going to have to make down the road is whether the taxpayer can bear the weight of running the airport or is FAA funding going to be on the table,” Mr. McGintee said on Wednesday. “I would be interested in plugging in a fee schedule that doesn’t skew us way above everybody else … and then take a look at the leases we currently have and the potential values and see what we have to live on.”

Airport landing fees are currently, for non-commercial, private flights, $5 for single-engine prop planes; $10 for multi-engine; $35 for single-engine light turbines; $50 for larger multi turbines, and $100 for large turbines over 12,500 pounds. For corporate and revenue flights, single-engine prop planes are $20; multi-engine prop, $30; single-light light turbine, $40; multi-engine light turbine, $50; multi-engine turbine up to 12,500 pounds, $100, and over 12,500 pounds, $150. These rates were raised from even lower numbers in 2006, Mr. Brundige said. Even so, they are among the highest on Long Island.

Board members discussed the possibility that the town could sell a nine-acre parcel it owns at the southwest end of the airport property, which could bring in millions of dollars to put toward work at the airport. But consultant Alex Zaslow, who designed a financial computer model for airport operations and maintenance, noted that such a sale may help in the immediate future but the town would still have to absorb many of the same costs again in the future without the benefit of selling property.

The computer model developed by Mr. Zaslow will allow the town to look at the various revenue and cost options to see what combinations of increased revenues and reduced or spread-out costs would be feasible at the airport.

The board members said they will meet again later this month to continue work on determining the goals of the master plan.

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