More than 300 East End residents Wednesday pushed East Hampton Town leaders to go to battle with helicopter pilots and act to curb noisy flights to and from the town's increasingly busy municipal airport.
A regional forum at the LTV Inc. studio in Wainscott, just across the street from East Hampton Airport, drew residents from four eastern towns who have rallied in unprecedented numbers this summer for a solution.
Residents of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island and Southold said helicopter flights have awakened them in the early morning hours, interrupted conversations and disturbed the rural serenity that drew them to the East End.
"I actually wear these earplugs if I want to go outside and breathe," Amy Greenberg, a Mattituck resident, said. "I'm trying not to curse, that's how bad it is."
East Hampton officials said they convened the forum after they learned a crowd of residents from other towns planned to converge at a town board meeting last week.
"This one issue has galvanized the East End communities like no other," Jim Colligan of Shelter Island said. "It's a fancy term, the quality of a person's life. But quality of life issues supersede economic issues."
East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez said the town board "will do whatever we legally can do to address the intolerable situation," but its powers are limited by federal law.
"We cannot order planes and helicopters to stop flying, and we cannot just close our airport," she said.
Helicopter traffic is up 44 percent this year, town officials have said.
Many residents said altering flight paths is not an adequate fix because it just moves the noise around, and said the town board must enact new rules, such as curfews or restrictions on the volume of flights, that would slash traffic.
Others said the helicopters should be redirected over water. And a handful pushed more radical solutions: banning helicopters from the airport except for emergency evacuations or closing the airport entirely and redirecting traffic to Montauk.Residents also urged the town board to accept no new federal grants for airport maintenance, which town officials and activists have said come with contractual terms that limit the town's control of the airport.
But many acknowledged that helicopter pilots, whose business is ferrying wealthy summer residents and visitors from Manhattan to the Hamptons, will likely sue the town to block any regulations.
Jeff Smith, vice president of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, said pilots "want to work with communities on noise reduction, route identification, and the transition to quieter equipment."
He called the airport "a critical financial and public safety lifeline for the community."
Pilots have argued that they are an integral part of the economy of the Hamptons, and that the airport could physically deteriorate if the town forgoes federal funds.
An East Hampton budget committee concluded this spring that the airport generates enough revenue to maintain itself without the grants.
The Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island town boards passed resolutions this month asking East Hampton to forgo the funds.