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East Hampton may impose new restrictions on seaplanes

Seaplanes are a small percentage of South Fork

Seaplanes are a small percentage of South Fork air traffic, accounting for about 10% of the roughly 16,000 annual flights at East Hampton Town Airport, according to a 2019 report. Credit: Charles Eckert

East Hampton Town officials are considering a ban on seaplane landings, takeoffs and taxiing within 1,500 feet of the shoreline as residents have complained about the amphibious aircrafts’ growing East End presence in recent years.

Seaplanes are a small percentage of South Fork air traffic, accounting for about 10% of the roughly 16,000 annual flights at East Hampton Town Airport, according to a 2019 report from East Hampton Town airport manager Jim Brundige.

But water landings raise health and safety concerns for recreational boaters and bathers as well as commercial fishermen, town officials said. Seaplanes also pose environmental threats from fuel pollution, degradation of marine vegetation and because they can bring invasive species when they land.

“These large planes have been witnessed in multiple waterways from Northwest Harbor, Napeague Bay and Fort Pond Bay in Montauk,” Town Councilman David Lys, the law’s sponsor, said during an April 14 online town board work session. “Myself and the town board have concerns for public safety.”

“They’ll come in very low and do a circle, I mean really low,” Barry Holden, a Noyac resident and a member of the airport noise advisory committee in neighboring Southampton Town, said in an interview. “You can see the dirt on the bottom of the plane and it’s very scary.”

Aircraft traffic and noise has been a hot-button issue on the East End, with mounting pressure for East Hampton to close its town-owned airport when federal mandates tied to grants expire in 2021. East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc earlier this year said closing the airport is a “likely outcome” if the town does not gain greater control at the Wainscott facility, but no decision has been made.

A representative of the East Hampton Aviation Association said the group does not have an official position on the proposed law, but viewed it as the town planning ahead to ensure seaplane business doesn’t swell should the airport close.

Seaplanes are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration while in the air but must adhere to U.S. Coast Guard rules while at sea, according to the FAA seaplane handbook. Rules governing where seaplanes may take off and land are generally left to state and local governments. Seaplane pilots should take precaution to avoid causing issues in congested waters and remember that people and personal watercrafts can be unpredictable, the handbook states.

“Swimmers may be nearly invisible, often with just their heads showing above the waves,” the handbook states.

Southampton Town prohibits takeoffs and landings within 1,000 feet of the shoreline and has a 5 mph taxiing limit. In Southold Town, seaplane taxiing, landings and takeoffs are prohibited in all town waters.

The current East Hampton law prohibits takeoffs and landings in a handful of local waterways, including Three Mile Harbor and Montauk’s Fort Pond. 

The proposed new law would prohibit seaplanes in virtually all nearshore waters and calls for first-time offense penalties between $1,500 and $5,000, and/or 14 days in jail.

A public hearing on the proposed law will likely be scheduled when it is safe to do so.

No seaplanes near the shoreline?

Seaplanes pose safety hazards for boaters and bathers as well as environmental concerns, East Hampton Town officials say. A proposed East Hampton seaplane law would prohibit seaplane landings, takeoffs and taxiing within 1,500 of the shore. The law would carry first-time offense penalties of $1,500 to $5,000 and/or 14 days in jail.

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