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Politicians join call to curb helicopter noise on East End

A helicopter takes off from East Hampton Airport

A helicopter takes off from East Hampton Airport in Wainscott on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

East Hampton Town is facing mounting pressure from politicians in neighboring communities who are beginning to echo their constituents' calls to stem noise from helicopters bound for the town's increasingly busy municipal airport.

The Southampton Town Board, at a special meeting convened Thursday, voted 5-0 to pass a resolution urging East Hampton Town to "adopt a comprehensive aircraft noise limitation policy" next year. Shelter Island and Southold officials said they plan to vote on similar resolutions this month.

"You're starting to see many different communities galvanize around this issue," Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Thursday. "With numbers comes attention and hopefully results."

But East Hampton is also dealing with the threat of litigation from pilots and other business interests who worry that the town's efforts to exert more control over air traffic will bring about the deterioration of East Hampton Airport, which they argue is an economic lifeline for the Hamptons.

In its resolution, the Southampton Town Board also urged East Hampton leaders to stop taking Federal Aviation Administration grants to gain more authority over its airport.

An East Hampton Town budget committee in May concluded that the airport could generate enough revenue to maintain itself for several years without the FAA grants. Officials have said they could pass restrictions on flights, such as curfews, on Jan. 1, 2015, after certain contractual obligations with the FAA expire. That would require the town to forgo the federal grants it has relied on to fund airport maintenance and repair projects.

Support for that strategy is building after three packed meetings this week in Southold, Shelter Island and Southampton, where hundreds of residents seethed at the increasing air traffic over the East End. Helicopter takeoffs and landings are up 44 percent this year at the airport, town officials said.

Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty said Thursday that his town banned helicopter landings and takeoffs in 2007 "at the expense of luxury and convenience" but later found itself inundated with overhead traffic bound for the Hamptons.

"We're disgusted with subsequently becoming a dustbin for East Hampton Airport," he said.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said Thursday his board has no plans to pursue federal grants, and is waiting on reports from committees and a consultant as it weighs new restrictions next year. "We want to have every legal tool available . . . to mitigate the annoyance this air traffic is having on our residents and the residents of the surrounding communities," Cantwell said.

But that strategy may put the town on a collision course with pilots whose business is ferrying wealthy summer residents and visitors east from Manhattan. An attorney for Friends of East Hampton Airport, a nonprofit group representing pilots and other airport interests, told East Hampton Town officials in a July 31 letter that "pressing safety issues" at the airport require federal funding.

Those include deteriorating runways, overgrown trees, outdated lighting equipment and a "broken and spotty" deer fence, according to the letter.

"We are concerned that unless the town board accepts federal funding the necessary repairs will not take place and eventually the airport will not be able to permit commuter traffic, leaving the airport only open to small fixed-wing craft," Jericho attorney Leonard Kirsch wrote.

Kirsch said his clients "prefer a negotiated solution" over litigation and asked for a meeting with East Hampton officials.

"Our attorney will be responding to their attorney," Cantwell said.

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