East Hampton Airport generates enough money to maintain itself without any help from federal grants, a budget committee said last week in a unanimous finding that could end a decades-long battle over noise at the town-owned airport.
Residents who complain of noise have urged the town for years to stop taking grants from the Federal Aviation Administration, which fund capital projects but come with contractual obligations that limit the town's ability to restrict flights.
The airport, which covers 600 acres in Wainscott on the border of East Hampton and Southampton towns, is open 24 hours a day and caters largely to summer residents and visitors who travel by helicopter or private jet.
"It's a watershed moment, really, because up until this time, the aviation community had claimed that the airport would fall into disrepair, would be unsafe, if we did not accept FAA funding," said Kathleen Cunningham, chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, a group that advocates for a quieter airport.
The town board placed activists on both sides of the issue on the budget committee, whose report showed helicopter traffic -- considered the noisiest by many neighbors -- more than doubling over 15 years, increasing to 5,728 takeoffs and landings in 2013 from 2,408 in 1998. Private-jet traffic more than tripled over that period, increasing to 3,601 takeoffs and landings from 1,108.
The budget committee told the town board at a meeting last week that the airport could handle $5.1 million to $8.5 million in new debt over the next three years using only revenue from landing fees, fueling fees, rent and other income.
That income has increased from $1.2 million in 2009 to an estimated $1.9 million in 2014, the committee said.
Committee members said that even if the town bans helicopters entirely, the airport could still handle $6.4 million in new debt, in part because some traffic and noise monitoring services would become unnecessary. Town officials said that is an unlikely scenario.
If the town forgoes grants, it could impose new limits on flights starting Jan. 1, 2015 -- the expiration date for some contractual obligations to the FAA, town officials said.
Those obligations prevent the town from limiting access to the airport. Once they expire, the town could impose rules such as curfews or a system requiring aircraft to make reservations for specific time slots, town officials said.
But Jeffery Smith, vice president of the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council, said the extent of the town's abilities is "open to legal interpretation."
"There's a difference of opinion as to what the anti-airport people believe will happen on Jan. 1, 2015, and the Eastern Region Helicopter Council," said Smith, who is a pilot.
The town will wait on more reports from several airport-related committees before deciding what to do, said Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who has been working to solve the airport dispute.
"Without accepting FAA funding for the next five to seven years, the airport's fund, without property taxes, can make the improvements necessary to keep the airport safe," said Supervisor Larry Cantwell.
Landing fees at the airport range from $10 to $600 depending on the size of the aircraft.
"East Hampton Airport is not your normal airport," said Arthur Malman, an attorney and investor who chairs the budget committee. "We have lots of jets, private jets and lots of helicopters coming in. Most general aviation airports don't have the customer base that we do."
An FAA spokesman declined to comment.
The debate over noise at the airport has raged for more than two decades and sparked lawsuits. Some people living under flight paths say the traffic disrupts their peace in the summer. Pilots have said the airport is an economic engine and a vital transportation hub for the resort town.