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Court case could determine if laws to reduce helicopter noise in East Hampton will stand

A helicopter departs from the East Hampton Town

A helicopter departs from the East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott, Nov. 11, 2014. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Months of planning by East Hampton Town officials to reduce helicopter noise this summer could hinge on a Monday court hearing in Central Islip.

U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Seybert is weighing whether the town's new noise regulations will go into effect Tuesday or be shelved until a lawsuit brought by the aviation industry is resolved. Seybert could issue a ruling the same day as the 10 a.m. hearing.

At issue is whether the town can legally regulate its own airport as it tries to address years of complaints from residents over air traffic between Manhattan and the Hamptons.

East Hampton passed three laws on April 16 restricting access to the town-owned East Hampton Airport: an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew for all flights; an extended 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. curfew for aircraft considered noisy; and a one-trip-per-week limit for noisy aircraft.

Helicopter companies and other aviation interests sued the town on April 21, arguing the rules are illegal because the federal government regulates the air. They asked a judge to stop the laws from going into effect while the suit is litigated.

Friends of East Hampton Airport, a coalition of helicopter operators and their allies, said in the suit that the town's laws would hurt businesses that ferry people between Manhattan and the Hamptons if they are allowed to take effect this summer.

East Hampton's lawyers argued in court papers that local governments have the power to regulate municipal airports, as long as the rules are reasonable. They said the "fears of dire losses are overstated."

Attorneys for the town said in court papers that the local laws "are necessary to protect the essential qualities of peace and quiet that are the core of what makes East Hampton and the East End of Long Island a desirable haven."

The Federal Aviation Administration surprised anti-noise activists this month by supporting the aviation industry's bid to block the regulations until the lawsuit is resolved. FAA officials believe an injunction is needed so the agency can "develop its position on the issues," Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said in a May 4 court filing.

The Quiet Skies Coalition, a group of residents supporting anti-noise laws, said in a news release that the FAA's stance is "unexpected and alarming."

"To go back to try to undo the foundation of these policies is the worst sort of big-government interference," Kathleen Cunningham, the group's chairwoman, said in the release. "And for whom? Some out-of-state helicopter companies that are unhappy that they cannot have 24/7/365 access to our community."

FAA officials told Newsday last year that East Hampton could pass "reasonable, non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory" airport regulations, but did not comment on specific rules. Friends of East Hampton Airport sued the FAA in January in an attempt to compel the agency to fight the town's regulations.

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