Supervisor Sean Walter with Rep. Lee Zeldin at yesterday's press conference.
Relations between local officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, at odds for several years over helicopter flight paths, grew even more turbulent after the two town supervisors on the North Fork yesterday accused federal regulators —and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer — of being less than forthright.
Yesterday, Rep. Lee Zeldin, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter took the senator to task for what they said was his role in the four-year extension of an FAA-approved helicopter route that has East Hampton-bound helicopters flying over North Fork homes. The extension was put in place by the FAA this month without any public comment period and with no notice to local officials, who said yesterday Schumer knew about it well in advance and in fact applied “political pressure” to get the FAA to adopt the four-year extension in that manner.
FAA representatives made that clear at yesterday morning’s meeting in Ronkonkoma, Zeldin and the town supervisors said at a press conference in Riverhead yesterday. Today, the FAA fired back, accusing the officials of misrepresenting what was said at the meeting.
“Comments an FAA employee made yesterday about the North Shore Helicopter Route were misrepresented,” the agency said in a written statement.
“Media have reported the claim that there was a secret deal regarding the North Shore Helicopter Route. There was no secret deal with Senator Schumer or anyone else. Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Zeldin have been unequivocal in their strong support for all over-water helicopter routes on Long Island to augment existing routes,” the statement said. “Both Senator Schumer and Congressman Zeldin have articulated the same concerns to the FAA regarding impacts to their constituents and have been equally forceful in expressing their shared position to extend the helicopter route around Orient Point, Shelter Island, and Plum Island as soon as possible.”
“I wonder if Sen Schumer wrote that himself,” Russell mused. “Obviously, the FAA has generally been an agency that is there to advance the agenda of the senator to the exclusion of all others. Apparently, they are his mouthpiece, too.”
Walter said the local officials “absolutely did not misrepresent” what was said by FAA officials at yesterday’s meeting. “They were very clear,” he said.
Zeldin issued a statement this afternoon saying he’d had “a very good conversation” with Schumer’s “senior staff” this morning and the senator “supports extending the North Shore route around Orient Point while also lifting the hold to create a mandatory South Shore route.”
The congressman promised to “continue to do everything in my power to assist” Riverhead and Southold towns. Failure cannot be an option with so much at stake for North Fork residents who want to see an end to this annual headache.”
“Failure cannot be an option with so much at stake for North Fork residents who want to see an end to this annual headache,” Zeldin said.
Asked to directly respond to the FAA statement that officials at yesterday’s press conference “misrepresented” what the regulators told them at yesterday morning’s meeting, Zeldin’s communication director said in an email:
“While the FAA evolves their story line, Congressman Zeldin is committed to working with anyone who wants to help push the FAA to implement an acceptable solution. The solution is an all-water route, not the status quo. There is also absolutely no need in 2016 for the FAA to still be searching for data to fix the mess that they created.”
Russell told Southold Town Board members at this morning’s work session that yesterday’s meeting with FAA reps was “eye-opening.”
“In the past we’ve met with FAA reps and asked questions and got blank stares,” the supervisor said.
He was especially struck by the FAA’s admission, he said, that the “requisite studies” had not been done prior to implementing the North Shore rule on a “temporary basis” for two years in 2012, or before extending it for two years in 2014, or for four years in 2016.
“They say they’re doing [the studies] now,” Russell said. “They said they haven’t mandated a south shore route because they haven’t done the studies and it would be arbitrary and capricious. Well, we know all about arbitrary and capricious here on the North Fork,” he said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, left, held a press conference today at Riverhead Town Hall to discuss a meeting with representatives of the FAA, which he set up to find out why the agency extended the north shore helicopter route with no notice or comment period.
Rep. Lee Zeldin and local elected officials came out of a meeting with FAA officials this morning saying they were disturbed to learn that the four-year extension of the north shore helicopter route that took effect this month was the result of “political pressure.”
But they said they were not entirely surprised.
The officials believe that the U.S. senators from New York, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, could solve the helicopter noise problems of North Fork residents if they really wanted to. But they lack the will or the interest and haven’t really been helpful, they said.
The group met with about a dozen FAA representatives, including a “key” Washington staffer, in Ronkonkoma this morning to complain about the way the FAA implemented an extension of the north shore route — on an “emergency” basis, without the opportunity for public comment and without notifying local elected officials, including the congressman, in advance.
They said they learned what Zeldin called “disturbing news”: Sen. Chuck Schumer was having a dialogue and working directly with the FAA’s Washington office to extend the route for four years, Zeldin charged.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter was more blunt. He said Schumer “negotiated…a secret deal with the FAA to put his flawed north shore route into effect without the public’s input.”
Walter called for the public to protest outside the senators’ offices.
“They’re not paying attention,” Walter said. “The only way you’re going to get that is if we start protesting in front of their offices.”
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said Schumer gave local officials “every indication he was fighting against the extension.”
“I would implore the senator to come clean, to admit that he wasn’t, admit that he wasn’t honest to the public and say he’s going to do better this time,” Russel said.
The north shore route was adopted by the FAA as a temporary measure in 2012. It requires helicopter pilots to fly over the L.I. Sound from NYC to eastern Riverhead Town, where they can head south to their destination — typically East Hampton airport. It also requires pilots to maintain a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet over land.
But pilots are given much discretion in choosing to adhere to the route — or not. And very many do not. The noise disturbs and upsets local residents who say it deprives them of enjoyment of their homes and yards.
Local residents and officials continue to press for the FAA to adopt a mandatory over-water south shore route for all helicopter traffic bound for south shore airports.
Zeldin previously advocated an extension of the north shore route for no more than one year, so the FAA could work out permanent rules — as long as the route mandated helicopters to fly over water out past Orient Point.
Instead, the route was extended for four years and it was not mandated to be an all-water route as requested. The decision angered residents and officials who fear another four years of low-flying helicopters disturbing North Fork residents’ quality of life. But the way the decision was made added insult to injury, officials said. Rather than publish a proposed rulemaking 30 days in advance as mandated by federal law, the FAA acted on an “emergency” basis, adopting the route extension with no notice or opportunity for comment.
Today, Zeldin said Schumer was either complicit in that turn of events or even responsible for it.
“The decision for the extension of the north shore route, which we found out about on a Saturday afternoon just before it dropped in the Federal Register on Monday, a decision that lacked any transparency and any ability for public comment, was worked through the Washington D.C. office with Senator Schumer,” Zeldin said. “Senator Schumer was given at least 30 days notice of the decision and we all found out about it after the decision was made and moments before it was made public,” he said.
“It’s time to put politics aside,” Zeldin said. “It’s important for those two United States senators to weigh in and help — and not do anything inconsistent behind the scenes because it might come back and catch up to you, as it did with what was told to us at this morning’s meeting.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Schumer disputed the version of events presented at today’s press conference.
“Senator Schumer has long supported and fought for an all-over-water North Shore helicopter route that extends the current route past Orient Point and around Plum Island, as well as the establishment of an all-over-water south shore route,” Schumer spokesperson Angelo Roefaro said. “He strongly urged the FAA to expand the current north shore route to help the thousands of East End residents who are continuously burdened by the constant drone of helicopter noise. He will continue to side with concerned residents to ensure their voices are heard.”
Zeldin urged residents to keep up the pressure on the FAA with phone calls and complaints. He said individual residents need to contact the agency and not just rely on the leaders of civic groups. The FAA seems not to recognize civic leaders as voices for large groups of people, he said.
The congressman said he and town officials have “all options on the table,” including legislation and litigation — as well as possibly petitioning the FAA to change the rule. Zeldin said the suggestion by FAA officials that the towns draft and file such a petition — which would be expensive — was offensive since the FAA could change the rule on its own.
The FAA believes the north shore route is “equitable and acceptable,” Zeldin said. “They need to change their definition of what “equitable and acceptable” is, he said.
FAA representatives provided local officials with satellite images on which helicopter flight paths and altitudes were indicated for blocks of time on four dates in the past month: Friday, July 15 from 5 a.m. to 12 noon; Thursday, Aug. 4 from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 7, from 12 noon to 11 p.m.; and Monday Aug. 8, from 5 a.m, to 12 noon.
The images showed a total of 407 trips during 33 hours: 251 flew a north shore route and 156 flew a south shore route. The images show flights in the altitude ranges of “surface to 2500 feet” in pink and “2500 feet to 3500 feet” in green.