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FAA rule on helicopter noise delayed

Helicopters arriving and departing at the East Hampton

Helicopters arriving and departing at the East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott. There have been complaints from residents island wide about the increase in helicopter traffic to and from the eastern end of Long Island. (Oct. 14, 2007) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A federal rule to reduce helicopter traffic over Long Island won't be in effect by July 4 as pledged earlier this year by transportation officials, but North Shore residents should get relief from chopper noise by early August.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that a Federal Aviation Administration regulation requiring helicopters to travel offshore to cut down on noise is expected to be released Tuesday. Thirty days later, it will take effect, his office said.

"I would have much preferred immediate implementation, but bureaucratic rules being what they are, that was not possible," Schumer said. "Having the regulation in effect for a good part of the summer will be very helpful and provide real relief to many residents."

In January, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered the FAA to finalize a regulation by Memorial Day and have it in effect by Independence Day. The deadlines were to ensure the rule was in place before helicopter traffic hits its peak, ferrying commuters to East End summer vacation homes.

The rule was delayed when the White House's Office of Management and Budget, which reports directly to the president, decided to review the regulation. OMB did not respond when asked for comment.

"All I can say is I hope it helps," said Leonard Schaier, a Port Washington man who founded Citizens for Quiet Skies over North Hempstead last year to combat aviation noise. "If it all of a sudden stops all helicopter traffic over Long Island, it will be great."

LaHood's office has not discussed specifics about the rule. In a statement, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Brie Sachse said the agency is "committed to mitigating noise impacts from aircraft operations in the most efficient way possible."

On June 22, the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of OMB, posted the North Shore Route on its website as one of the regulations under review. The agency listed it as having no federal budget impact and no legal deadline.

Typically, OMB reviews rules that are deemed "significant" though it has discretion to evaluate any proposed rule. The FAA contends the rule is not a significant regulatory action.

Before the new rule can take effect, it must be published in the Federal Register, a daily digest of notices of federal agencies and presidential documents and executive orders. Schumer said he expected the rules to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

LaHood said in January that the rule would require helicopter pilots to fly mostly over water with a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet if weather permits.

"I expect it to bring relief to Long Islanders shortly," Schumer said Monday. "It's been a long, hard road."

The Eastern Region Helicopter Council, which represents pilots who fly to Long Island's East End, fought to block the rule from becoming permanent.

The council has offered an alternative to the FAA's noise mitigation plans. Helicopter pilots favor operators mixing the routes they fly over the Island so that no one community gets the brunt of the noise.

Using diverse flight plans reduces noise complaints, which the council said have jumped since pilots began using the proposed FAA over-water North Shore route on a voluntarily basis starting in 2008, council chairman Jeff Smith said.

"The facts are simple: The mandatory North Shore route results in a dramatic and permanent increase of noise for Long Island residents," Smith said. "This is a misguided plan . . . and gives North Shore residents no options."

Two years ago, the FAA backed off making the North Shore route permanent after it received almost 1,000 comments about the proposal. And earlier this year, Schumer's attempts to get the North Shore route included in FAA funding legislation failed.

Peter J. Kirsch is a registered lobbyist employed by the Town of East Hampton to lobby the House of Representatives, the Senate and the FAA on the issue of helicopter flight paths and restrictions.

Kirsch said last week the town supports making the FAA's North Shore Route permanent and that it's not usual for a "major regulation" like a final flight-path rule to undergo an "internal review" by the White House.

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