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Helicopter companies sue East Hampton over new airport rules

A helicopter departs from the East Hampton Town

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

Helicopter companies have filed a lawsuit arguing East Hampton Town had no authority to pass new anti-noise laws set to restrict pilots' access to East Hampton Airport beginning in May.

The suit, filed Tuesday against East Hampton in federal court in Central Islip, seeks to block the town's regulations from taking effect Memorial Day weekend, at the start of the busy summer season in the Hamptons.

Friends of East Hampton Airport, a coalition of helicopter operators and their allies, was joined in the suit by six individual charter helicopter companies and Sound Aircraft Services Inc., a company based at the town-owned airport in Wainscott that provides a variety of services to pilots and passengers.

The suit comes days after the town board passed three laws on April 16 designed to address decades of complaints about noisy air traffic over eastern Long Island.

The rules include an 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew on takeoffs and landings; an extended curfew of 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. for aircraft considered noisy; and a one-trip-per-week limit for noisy aircraft from May 1 to Sept. 30. The town defines noisy aircraft as those that exceed certain decibel levels.

The companies claim the town's actions were illegal because federal law prevents local governments from regulating airports.

"It is deeply unfortunate that we were forced to sue to stop the town's actions," Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the coalition, 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."

East Hampton officials, in a statement, said the lawsuit "is entirely predictable and contains no surprises" and that the town is "fully prepared for this litigation and will vigorously defend its legal and constitutional right to impose reasonable, non-arbitrary, and carefully balanced restrictions."

Town board members said they gained new powers over the town-owned airport on Jan. 1, when they allowed parts of a federal contract to expire and swore off future federal grants for airport maintenance. The suit argues that the airport is actually still under federal control.

Friends of East Hampton Airport filed two separate legal complaints in January seeking to block the proposed rules. Those are still pending.

Kurt Carlson, chief executive of New Jersey-based HeliFlite, a helicopter company that is a plaintiff, said in a statement that the town "chose a path that guaranteed litigation rather than effective alternatives."

East Hampton officials, in their statement, said the issue of local control of airports has "been litigated over and over again in lawsuits throughout the nation, and airport proprietors have consistently won."

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