Sunday, June 18, 2017

Summer in the Hamptons: Oysters, Rosé, and Helicopter Noise? While the U.S. Supreme Court considers reviewing a case involving East Hampton Airport, town officials deal with a slew of complaints

The Wall Street Journal
By Joseph De Avila
Updated June 18, 2017 10:33 a.m. ET

Summer isn’t even officially here, but noise complaints at an airport in the Hamptons have started pouring in—1,000 on Memorial Day weekend alone.

It is a long-running problem for this tony Long Island spot about a four-hour drive east of New York City where the population quadruples during the steamy summer and commuters increasingly use helicopters to avoid the congested Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway.

With all those trips—at costs starting at $500 a seat on a shared helicopter from New York City—comes noise, which irks many of the area’s 21,500 year-round residents. More than 26,000 aircraft-related noise complaints were registered in 2016, up from about 24,000 the previous year, according to the town of East Hampton. Most come during the summer.

Kathleen Cunningham, who has lived in East Hampton for 40 years about 3 miles from East Hampton Airport, said she can feel the aircraft coming.


“The physical pulsing you can actually feel it in your chest when it’s low enough,” said Ms. Cunningham, who is chair of a group called the Quiet Skies Coalition. “It vibrates the house. It vibrates the glassware.”

According to the town, there are about 25,000 takeoffs and landings a year and more than 8,000 helicopter landings and departures at East Hampton Airport. Commercial airlines can’t use the airport, which opened in the 1930s and sits about 5 miles west from town hall, but private jets can.

Larry Cantwell, the East Hampton town supervisor, said he and the town board want to keep the airport open, but are sensitive to residents’ concerns. The roughly $5 million in annual revenue generated by the airport goes toward its budget, which generally is about the same, he noted.

“I love the airport. I hate the noise,” Mr. Cantwell said. “We believe, with some local restrictions, we can help control the problem. And right now our hands are tied.”

Other East End communities grapple with air-traffic noise—Southampton has a heliport, Westhampton Beach has a county-run airport and Montauk is home to a privately-owned airport.

The town is limited in what it can do because of a legal fight that sits at the U.S. Supreme Court. The case landed there after air-charter operators sued the town, which owns the airport, in federal court in 2015 for setting morning and evening curfews on flights and limiting the number of trips certain aircraft can make. The limitations were enacted to address the noise complaints.

The lower court sided in part with the town in 2015. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the companies. The Supreme Court is considering reviewing the case.

The legal debate rests on whether a federal-aviation law enacted by Congress in 1990 pre-empts East Hampton’s ability to pass its own restrictions on air travel. The aviation companies contend this law pre-empts the town’s control. The town disagrees.

“Congress perceived that a ‘patchwork quilt’ of local noise restrictions continued to stymie the airport development required for the nation’s aviation” when it passed a federal law regulating air traffic, the appeals court wrote in its November ruling.

Attorneys for the aviation companies that sued the town declined to comment. In court papers to the Supreme Court, the attorneys said the quarrel is “properly addressed to Congress, not the Court.”

The Supreme Court, which will recess at the end of June, could announce whether it will hear the town’s appeal later this month, Mr. Cantwell said.

The noise complaints started mounting a few years ago after ride-share apps made it easier to catch a helicopter ride, primarily from New York City, for a Hampton jaunt. Helicopter landings and departures increased to nearly 8,400 in 2014, up 47% from the previous year, according to court papers filed by the town.

John Kelly, director of operations for Shoreline Aviation, a firm that offers chartered seaplane service, said his company has flown into East Hampton for nearly four decades.

“We’ve done everything we can to mitigate our noise,” Mr. Kelly said. “We fly at the highest altitude available depending on weather and safety.”

Some locals say there is only one solution.

“Close the airport,” said Patricia Currie of the group Say No to KHTO, which is the airport code for the East Hampton Airport.

“Thousands and thousands of people are impacted by this so that a handful can travel for convenience and to save themselves a couple of hours journey on the highway,” said Ms. Currie, who lives in Noyack, N.Y., about 7 miles from the airport.

Ms. Cunningham, whose glassware chatters when aircraft land, said the town should be able to set its own flying curfews because it owns the airport.

“Every taxpayer in the town of East Hampton owns that airport,” Ms. Cunningham said. “They should have a right to govern it as benefits the entire community, not just the flying public.”

If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, Mr. Cantwell said the town will ask the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to set restrictions. He concedes that both are long shots.

So, for now, East Hampton will have to tolerate the noise—and the complaints.

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