East Hampton Town officials, under pressure to reduce noise from helicopters and other aircraft at the municipal airport, want to restrict air traffic, even ban some types of aircraft or impose a curfew on flights, by Memorial Day.
Only one other U.S. airport under federal control has imposed such restrictions in the past 24 years. But East Hampton officials said they believe they can gain control of the airport next year if they do not accept federal grants.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which historically has fought attempts to restrict air traffic across the country, on Friday said that after Dec. 31 when federal contracts expire, East Hampton "can limit operations only in a reasonable, non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner to address noise and other environmental concerns."
An East Hampton budget committee concluded in May that the airport makes enough money from fees to maintain itself without federal support. The town projects the airport will generate $5 million next year.
FAA officials said they could not comment on which noise-reduction policies they would accept before reviewing them.
There was a 40 percent surge in helicopter traffic last summer that accounted for more than 15,000 of the 22,700 complaints from across the East End about noise from helicopters, private jets and other fixed-wing aircraft. However, any attempt to restrict access to the 600-acre East Hampton Airport in Wainscott could ignite lengthy and costly battles with pilots and business interests, who have threatened to sue the town.
Options the town is considering include bans on certain types of aircraft, imposing curfews, and a "slot" system that limits the number of takeoffs and landings per hour.
"It's understood, if you're operating an airport, you're going to have noise," said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. "The question is, is there a threshold that can be established to protect those who are most impacted by it? We're in the process of exploring that possibility in a very deliberate, logical way."
Town board members said they want new regulations in place before part-time residents and visitors travel by helicopter between Manhattan and the Hamptons next summer.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has tried to broker solutions on the issue, declined to comment on East Hampton's plans.
Examples of airports enforcing bans, curfews and similar rules are few and far between. The FAA has squashed attempts to restrict air traffic, sometimes taking airport operators to court.
The agency "has a number of missions," said Peter Kirsch, a Colorado-based attorney specializing in aviation law who is working for East Hampton. "One is to promote air safety, but the other is to promote aviation. The FAA's philosophy is that regulations are undesirable."
Since 1990, just one of the 3,400 airports in the federal transportation system has successfully limited aircraft traffic in order to reduce noise. Naples Municipal Airport in Florida banned some jets in 2005, but only after petitioning the FAA for several years, then fighting the agency in court. The effort cost $3 million, and the ban remains in effect.
In another case, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, spent $7 million and nine years petitioning the FAA, only to have its proposed nighttime curfew rejected in 2009.
The FAA also blocked the City of Santa Monica's 2008 attempt to ban some jets from its California airport, where a debate over noise, pollution and safety issues still rages.
None of those airports gave up federal grants as part of their effort to gain control over reducing noise.
Contract is expiring
East Hampton's case is different because the town could cut ties with the agency at the end of this year, when key terms of a 2001 contract related to a $1.4 million FAA grant expire.
David Goddard, chairman of Santa Monica's appointed airport commission, said his city may try a similar tactic next year.
"If East Hampton lets their federal obligations expire, as proprietor, they have the right to do whatever they want at the airport," he said.
But pilots and their allies have challenged that theory. Leonard Kirsch, a lawyer for Friends of East Hampton Airport, a coalition that includes pilots opposing the town's effort, said he will seek a federal court order to block any new rules.
"There are reasons why there haven't been massive restrictions on helicopter traffic and jet traffic around the country," said Kirsch, who is not related to Peter Kirsch. "The reason is nobody has been able to find a way under the law."
As helicopter traffic soared on the East End this summer, more than 22,000 complaints poured in to a hotline at East Hampton Airport, and hundreds of homeowners rallied at emotional meetings.
Helicopters generated most complaints, but seaplanes and small private jets accounted for some as well.
East Hampton must craft regulations narrowly if it is to withstand a court challenge, said Peter Kirsch, the town's lawyer. Cantwell said the town has budgeted nearly $600,000 toward legal fees and contingency funds next year, and projects a $1.5 million surplus in its airport account.
"We would prefer no litigation," he said. "We would prefer to come up with a consensus of opinion. That being said, we are prepared to defend any actions we propose."