Aviation Groups Sue East Hampton Town In Effort To Block Recently Approved Airport Restrictions

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Friends of the East Hampton Airport, a group that represents aviation businesses, filed suit against the Town of East Hampton for adopting a package of new restrictions designed to reduce noise generated by air traffic at the East Hampton Airport.

The East Hampton Town Board adopted the restrictions on Thursday, April 16, to applause from noise-affected residents who have complained for years about disruptions to their quality of life from traffic at the airport, most notably from a significant increase in helicopter traffic in recent years.

But on Tuesday, Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of the East Hampton Airport, announced that the group had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to halt the restrictions, which were set to begin on May 1. A jury trial is demanded.

“It is deeply unfortunate that we were forced to sue to stop the town’s actions,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said in a statement. “It is a course that we concluded we had no alternative but to pursue after months of trying, without success, to convince the town to follow its obligations under federal aviation law. FOEHA remains steadfastly committed to preserving East Hampton Airport’s vitality and accessibility to the public.”

According to East Hampton Town, the regulations are expected affect 75 percent of helicopter operations and 73 percent of associated complaints on weekends and holidays during the summer season alone.

Starting this summer, there would be a curfew banning all flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., year-round. Aircraft classified as “noisy” would not be permitted to take off or land between 8 p.m. and 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 has defined “noisy” aircraft 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, which are rarely the cause of noise complaints, would be excluded from the distinction, but most helicopters and larger turbo propeller airplanes and bigger jets would surpass the 91 decibel limit.

Both of the curfews gained unanimous support from the board, but Town Councilman Fred Overton dissented on the vote for the one-trip limit, saying it would create a major problem for the airport and its users and increase the risk of litigation. Instead, he would have preferred to see an incremental approach.

“This restriction will seriously inconvenience airport users and I’m not yet convinced it will produce as many benefits as my colleagues believe,” he said. “I would prefer that the balancing is done in a manner that slightly favors users of the airport. We need to be realistic about litigation. I believe the more restrictions we adopt, the greater the cost and complexity of litigation. We cannot prevent litigation, but we can reduce the number of parties who have incentive to sue.”

The Friends of the East Hampton Airport lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the regulations from being put in place. The suit states that the restrictions violate and conflict with federal law and policy and place an unduly burden on interstate commerce. Furthermore, local governments have no authority to use their “police powers” to regulate aircraft in flight or to impose airport noise or access restrictions, it states. Finally, the lawsuit argues that local airport proprietors have no authority to impose noise or access restrictions unless such regulations comply and conform with federal law and policy, and are otherwise reasonable, non-arbitrary and non-discriminatory. The aviators argue that the town must get permission from the Federal Aviation Association before the regulations can be moved forward.

At the heart of the issue is the impact the rules may have on the aviation businesses that have filed suit: Analar Corporation, Heliflite Shares, Liberty Helicopter—all of New Jersey, and Associated Aircraft Group of Wappingers Falls, Eleventh Street Aviation of Ohio and New York, Helicopter Association International of Virginia, and Sound Aircraft Services, the fix-based operator at East Hampton Airport.

“The Restrictions will cause serious and irreparable harm to the Plaintiff helicopter operators,” the lawsuit states. All of these Plaintiffs provide charter helicopter services to and from East Hampton Airport, and those flights account for a significant portion of their annual operations and revenues. Moreover, the vast majority of those flights occur from May through September. Because their aircraft are now deemed ‘Noisy Aircraft’ under the Restrictions, their access to East Hampton will be severely restricted, devastating their charter businesses.”

This week, Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell remained confident in the Town Board’s decision. He said he thinks the board made its best effort to provide relief to the noise-affected residents of East Hampton Town and the surrounding areas, despite threats of litigation.

“The opponents who might sue over this, state the town can’t afford to operate with the restrictions and pay for litigation, while they are part of the reason why the litigation cost will be incurred,” he said. “Having gone through this process for the past year and a half, it’s clear that the town must do a much better job of managing and maintaining the airport. There is no perfect solution to this. If we’re going to have a real reduction on the impact from helicopter noise, it requires some tough medicine, and we’ve taken that step.”

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, asked the Town Board to keep its word on measuring the impacts the regulations will have on the surrounding airports and the community. Mr. Samuelson had voiced his concern about traffic diversion or aircraft spillover to the Montauk Airport this summer based on the regulations.

“The frank reality is that we have a noise problem now and we’re still going to have a noise problem after this legislation goes through. It’s not a magic wand,” he said. “I ask you to stand by your commitments. I think you will be thankful when you take that look back.”

On Thursday, May 7, the Town Board will have a public hearing on proposed penalties for those who violate the restrictions. For the first violation by an individual aircraft, the Town Board proposes a maximum fine of $1,000; for the second violation a fine of no more than $4,000; for the third violation, a maximum of $10,000 would be imposed; and the fourth violation would result in the aircraft being banned from using the airport for up to two years.

Aviator Bruno Schreck said not only was he concerned about the regulations, but now he is worried about the violations he and other pilots could incur.

“If you’re stuck in the ether out west, and you show up half an hour late because of the weather, you can’t get home without paying a $1,000 fine,” he said. “How many times in the summer are we going to have bad enough weather that you’re not going to pay [$4,000] the next time? It sounds like you’re about to rule on something that hasn’t been fully thought out. It’s a rush to judgment and we’re about to pay a price and we don’t even know what it is.”

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