The East Hampton Town Board will vote Thursday on three resolutions that would significantly diminish aircraft operations at the East Hampton Airport—an act that comes after several years of struggle between aviation groups and the area’s noise-effected.
At Tuesday’s Town Board work session, the town’s planning department presented a key piece of the puzzle: the town’s airport traffic diversion study and its environmental assessment—both of which conclude that the proposed regulations would not significantly impact the surrounding area or neighboring airports with overflow flights, namely Montauk Airport, the Southampton Village Heliport and Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach.
Town officials say they are now ready to move forward with the studies in hand after gathering community input, most recently at a public hearing at LTV Studios, where hundreds of people aired their thoughts on the proposed rules.
“We had to take all the factors into consideration and we feel we struck the right balance,” Town Councilwoman and airport liaison Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said on Monday. “We will reevaluate after the 2015 season to see if in fact we did. There is no way to predict human behavior.”
If the Town Board approves the restrictions, there would be a curfew banning all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., year round. Aircraft labeled as “noisy” would face a stricter curfew and not be permitted to take off or land from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. year round. Furthermore, aircraft classified as “noisy” would be allowed only one takeoff and landing per week between May and September. The Town Board proposes that “noisy” aircraft would be defined as any airplane or helicopter that has an Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels (EPNdB) approach level of 91.0 or greater based on noise characteristics published by the Federal Aviation Administration or the European Aviation Safety Agency. Lighter single- and twin-engine general aviation and commercial aircraft that use the airport but are rarely the cause of noise complaints would be excluded from that distinction, but most helicopters, and larger turbo propeller airplanes and bigger jets, would surpass the 91.0 EPNdB limit.
According to Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, pleas from officials from neighboring towns and villages about a forced increase in operations at their respective airports made the Town Board and its consultants rethink and rescind a previously proposed summer weekend band on all helicopters. The proposed airport restrictions minus the helicopter ban, despite not curbing the whole issue of helicopter noise, would still cut down 75 percent of helicopter operations.
“We’re addressing the potential for diversion, allowing for reasonable access to the airport while delivering meaningful noise relief,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. The town’s legal counsel said the decision to drop the weekend helicopter ban wasn’t about putting the town in a better position to defend itself in lawsuits, but about being able to address the problem substantially with just three regulations.
Board members say the one-trip limit would significantly reduce helicopter operations and thus noise, despite some people’s belief that the total weekend ban on helicopters was the only answer.
According to the town’s consultant, Harris, Miller, Miller and Hanson, or HMMH, the current three-rule proposal will affect 75 percent of helicopter operations and 73 percent of associated complaints on weekends and holidays during the summer season—that’s 4,728 helicopter operations and 12,230 complaints for the season. Annually, that is 23 percent of all operations, but 60 percent of all complaints.
In comparison, having the weekend summer ban would have affected nearly 76 percent of annual helicopter operations and 87 percent of complaints related to helicopters.
Members of the aviation community, specifically helicopter businesses, are still frustrated by what they say is an extreme cut back in overall operations.
Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for several aviation businesses under Friends of the East Hampton Airport, said the decision to take away the weekend summer ban isn’t doing much to relieve possible overflow to other area airports and doesn’t help his clients.
“While we are pleased the board has begun to understand the folly of their ways, these modified changes do absolutely nothing to alleviate the major issues facing these proposals,” he said. “In fact, the town’s note [on its decision] specifically included Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley’s deep concerns, ‘If we received 10 percent of your overflow, operations would double, leaving us with a serious safety issue.’”
According to Airport Manager Jemille Charlton, one helicopter company could take as many as 20 flights in a summer weekend. If there are 45 distinct helicopters that fly into East Hampton on any given summer weekend—Thursday night to Monday morning—that could potentially result in approximately 900 trips in one weekend.
The peak day for helicopter activity at East Hampton Airport had a total of 65 arrivals, which accounts for 1.9 percent of the total summer season helicopter arrivals, according to the town.
“If a helicopter trip takes 40 minutes to get to and from Manhattan, and you have four or five aircraft, that is easily done,” Mr. Charlton said. “The limit on those to one trip a week will greatly reduce the number of operations.”
Due to that limit, the Friends of the East Hampton Airport are certain there will be overflow to other airports.
But the planning department’s diversion study shows a different assessment.
According to the town, the one operation limit is expected to increase the number of diverted helicopter flights to other airports by 976 to 1,300 arrivals and diverted fixed wing flights by 113 to 128 arrivals for the summer season. The town says the limit would lead to an average of 6.4 to 8.5 helicopter arrivals diverted to another airport per day, and less than one fixed wing arrival per day. The town expects the diverted aircraft would be spread out over the course of a day and not come in all at once.
It is unlikely that the limit would add more than a “handful” of vehicles per hour to the current traffic on the access roads to the Montauk Airport and the Southampton Village Heliport, the town’s study said.
“The additional trips would not be sufficient to create a significant impact on traffic at or near any of the alternative airports,” it stated. “None of the three alternatives have experienced the level of noise complaints that East Hampton has. It appears unlikely that the proposed restrictions would substantially reduce the demand for travel to the region, particularly during the summer season.”
The Town Board will vote on the proposed regulations on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.