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Hundreds expected at public hearing to ban helicopter flights to East Hampton Airport

A helicopter arrives at East Hampton Town Airport

A helicopter arrives at East Hampton Town Airport in Wainscott on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Where would the Hamptons economy be without helicopters? That depends on who's answering the question.

As East Hampton officials prepare for a public hearing Thursday on a move to ban choppers from the town's busy airport on summer weekends, advocates and opponents of the plan differ on the economic impact.

The proposed ban -- from noon Thursday to noon Monday, May through September -- is part of a package of rules meant to solve the decades-old problem of aircraft noise over eastern Suffolk County. Other proposed regulations include nighttime curfews and a one-trip-per-week limit for some aircraft during the summer.

Critics say the proposal could end a convenient mode of travel for the well-heeled Manhattanites who fuel the South Fork's resort economy.

"People will just go somewhere else that they can access by air and are welcomed," said Cindy Herbst, the owner of Sound Aircraft Services, a company that is based at East Hampton Airport and relies on air traffic for business.

Officials: They'll still come

East Hampton officials and their supporters say controlling the noise will preserve the peace and quiet that draws people there in the first place. They say consultants' reports found that the proposed restrictions will affect 24 percent of annual air traffic while addressing 67 percent of residents' complaints.

"One of the misconceptions that the aviation industry is seeking to put out there is that the economy will suffer," said Kathleen Cunningham, chairwoman of the Quiet Skies Coalition, which supports anti-noise rules. "But the bottom line is that people have been coming out to East Hampton and Southampton for well over 100 years, and most of them did not travel by helicopter."

Marina Van, director of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, said her members haven't expressed concern over the proposed rules. She said merchants are also residents, and some deal personally with the summer noise.

"I don't think it's going to affect the rich coming out here," she said of the airport restrictions. "They've come out here forever. They find a way to come out here. Many come out with their private chauffeurs. They travel late at night, when there's no traffic."

The public hearing is at 4:30 p.m. at LTV Studios in Wainscott and is expected to draw hundreds of residents.

Since at least the 1980s, wealthy New York City residents have paid thousands of dollars to charter 45-minute helicopter flights each weekend from the city to East Hampton Airport, near the communities where they own or rent summer homes by the ocean.

The practice has grown more popular in recent years. There were 4,198 helicopter flights logged at East Hampton Airport last year, a 47 percent increase from 2013.

For just as long, East End residents have complained that the choppers -- and, to a lesser extent, jets and seaplanes -- create a summertime thrum that spoils the bucolic atmosphere of eastern Long Island.

Helicopter operators acknowledge noise is a problem, but say a ban and other rules would effectively close East Hampton Airport to their clients.

Pat Day, director of operations for Liberty Helicopters, a New Jersey company that operates 12 helicopters out of Manhattan, said customers who "want to go to East Hampton would have to accept a destination other than that, such as Westhampton or Southampton, and we're just not sure that that would be acceptable to them."

Diversions elsewhere

East Hampton officials have hired a consultant to estimate how much helicopter traffic may be diverted to Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, a helipad owned by Southampton Village and the small Montauk Airport.

Paul Monte, manager of Gurney's Montauk Hotel and Resort and president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said he would not be in favor of "diverting a tremendous amount of traffic to Montauk Airport."

Margaret Turner, director of the East Hampton Business Alliance, said she is worried about a trickle-down effect that hits hotels, restaurants and tourism businesses -- and even the luxury real estate industry.

"There's an element of our population, and it's a fairly sizable one, that can afford to travel like this and doesn't want to sit for hours on the roads," said Turner, whose group represents 85 merchants. "They contribute a significant amount to the town, and they're taxpayers. They use the restaurants. They have friends who come out and use the bed-and-breakfasts."

Monte said his members just want a balanced solution.

"We understand that there is an economic benefit to having those alternative forms of transportation available," he said. "However, we'd like to maintain the quality of life."

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