East Hampton Town officials are considering closing the town-owned East Hampton Airport — which services ride-share helicopter passengers, CEOs and their private jets and recreational pilots — if the town cannot achieve meaningful reductions in aircraft noise and traffic volume.
The thumping of helicopter blades and roar of seaplane and jet engines, most frequent during the summer, has been a hot-button issue for years at the airport in Wainscott. Critics contend that the airport, which is a 35-minute flight from the East End to Manhattan, brings big-city noise, but supporters said the town could lose jobs, hurt its economy and alienate some of its most influential and affluent residents.
East Hampton has exhausted the judicial, legislative and administrative means of addressing the noise issue, Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said in an interview. After mandates tied to federal grants expire on Sept. 29, 2021, the town could solve the problem by closing the facility. No town board members have publicly said they support closing the airport, but the possibility has been mentioned several times over the years.
“I’m not sure given the constraints that we have … that the town board is in a position to allow things to continue at status quo.”
- East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc
"I’m not sure given the constraints that we have … that the town board is in a position to allow things to continue at status quo," Van Scoyoc said.
The town tried to regulate noise with curfews and other restrictions in 2015, but those rules were struck down in court because they did not comply with federal law. The town also considered undertaking a Part 161 study, a multimillion-dollar federal process working with the Federal Aviation Administration to enact local restrictions, but abandoned the process on the advice of its counsel. Town officials noted that other municipalities have spent millions of dollars and up to a decade of work on such proceedings without success.
East Hampton Town Councilman Jeff Bragman, the town board airport liaison, said the town is working on a public process to allow input from both sides on the issue. Part of the discussion will be examining economic and environmental impacts and envisioning other possible uses for the property, Van Scoyoc said. Those could include commercial retail space, housing, recreational space or a solar farm, he said. No formal requests for proposals have been issued for any studies.
Airport does not serve major airlines
The general aviation airport is unlike the Islip Town-owned Long Island MacArthur Airport in that it does not serve any major airlines. Instead, advertisements for Chanel and Patek Phillipe watches compete for attention from the airport’s private air travelers.
The airport’s 600 acres are owned by the town, but its more than $6 million annual budget is raised mostly through leases, landing fees and the sale of aviation fuel. The airport is home to private hangars leased by recreational pilots and transient flyers, and also services private charter and medevac flights.
The town last accepted grant money from the FAA in 2001, and with that came several requirements, including keeping the airport operational for public use. That agreement expires next September.
If the airport remains public — and if it is operated by the town, it must stay public regardless of the grant assurances — it still must comply with the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which hamstrings East Hampton’s ability to control operations. The FAA said the law is not clear as to what, if any, access restrictions an airport owner can impose on an airport that is not for public use.
"The FAA realizes that the Town of East Hampton’s decision is not simple, and while the FAA encourages the preservation of airports, we recognize this is a local decision," an FAA spokeswoman wrote in an email.
Resident: 'Our quality of life is gone'
The noise issue has drawn the attention of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Long Island’s congressional delegation, who most recently pushed the FAA to extend the North Shore Helicopter Route, a rule requiring the aircrafts to fly a mile offshore when traveling along the Island’s North Shore, until 2022.
The complaints have grown in the past few years with the proliferation of a sharing economy. Operations such as Columbus, Ohio-based NetJets, which allows users to share in leasing or owning a private jet and is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and New York City-based Blade, which advertises a 10-pack of flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons for $7,500, have made private flights accessible to more people.
“Private aviation in a rural area like this, I mean the airport was not built for that ... our quality of life is gone.”
- Patricia Currie, one of the founders of the anti-airport group Say No to KHTO
Patricia Currie, one of the founders of the anti-airport group Say No to KHTO, said noise is particularly troublesome in Noyac where she lives, which is north of the highway in Southampton Town, and for North Fork residents.
"Private aviation in a rural area like this, I mean the airport was not built for that," said Currie, who advocates for closing the airport. "It’s become a major jet port. So as far as I’m concerned, our quality of life is gone."
Kathy Cunningham, an East Hampton resident who lives near the airport and who has studied the issue for decades, said she did not previously favor closing it. However, she now thinks it may be impossible for the town to gain control of the airport.
"I think the town has been forced into an all-or-nothing approach," Cunningham said.
Some say airport an economic engine
Proponents said the airport is an important economic engine, most recently allowing people to easily commute from Manhattan to the East End during the coronavirus pandemic. They also said it offers recreational and educational opportunities for aircraft enthusiasts, charity flights for those in need of medical treatment and allows a safe place for a medevac helicopter to land.
Members of the East Hampton Aviation Association, a pilot group, have noted that the demand for air travel out east would not suddenly evaporate with the airport’s closure. Those aircraft would still make use of existing helipads in Montauk and Southampton, they said.
“It is one of the main sources of bringing people into the area because anybody who's been out here knows how much traffic is on [Route] 27.”
- Kathryn Slye Allen, recreational pilot and vice president of the pilot group East Hampton Aviation Association
Closing the facility, supporters said, would be an extreme option when perhaps other compromises could be reached.
"It is one of the main sources of bringing people into the area because anybody who’s been out here knows how much traffic is on [Route] 27," Kathryn Slye Allen, the aviation association’s vice president and a recreational pilot, said during an interview at the airport. "We have a two-lane road that comes in and out. This does have a significant impact when people choose where they want to go and do their summer vacation."
One avenue could be working directly with organizations such as the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, an industry group that wields considerable influence over its pilots. Bragman noted during a public forum in February hosted by the Express News Group, a local newspaper company, that during summer 2019 helicopter traffic suddenly increased over Northwest Harbor, a hamlet north of the airport. He then learned the helicopter council had put out a directive to its pilots telling them to abandon the southern route following questions about that route’s safety.
"My realization was the Eastern Region Helicopter Council had more control over routing in the sky than your elected officials in the Town of East Hampton," Bragman said during the forum.
The newly formed East Hampton Community Alliance — founded by Gianpaolo de Felice, a local restaurateur, and Michael Norbeck, who owns a Hertz rental car franchise based at the airport — is among those stressing the airport’s importance on the South Fork. The group, which has hired a Manhattan public relations firm to help its cause and is soliciting donations for an awareness and advertising campaign on its website, is commissioning its own study examining the airport’s impact on the local economy.
"I think business is going to be affected," said de Felice, a former Alitalia pilot who keeps a small plane at the airport. "A lot of people that benefit from working here in the Hamptons, they will have to migrate elsewhere."
Van Scoyoc said he doubts an independent review would show the town’s economy would crash without the airport.
"Further study to understand exactly what the economic impacts are, both benefits and detriments, is really important," he said. "That’ll be a crucial part of making a sound decision."
Rising traffic and noise complaints
Total flights in and out of the airport
Summer 2019: 19,200
Summer 2018: 17,700
Summer 2015: 15,600
- Helicopters are about one-third of operations, but make up more than half of complaints.
- Complaints are funneled to the town board through two systems, PlaneNoise and Air Noise Report. In 2019, complaints were recorded from 553 locations. However, 44% of those complaints came from just 10 households, with the highest making 1,811 complaints that year.
Source: Review of Operation and Complaints prepared by Burlington, Massachusetts-based HMMH, July 2020