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Editorial: Chopper foes make noise

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

After a summer of discontent over helicopter noise, East Hampton town officials have an opportunity to take control of the problem.

To do that, they'll first have to pass up federal funding for capital projects at the East Hampton Airport. Going it alone financially would free officials to impose reasonable restrictions to limit noise without the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration. The most effective ways would be a curfew, essentially limiting the hours the airport is in operation for helicopters, or limiting the number of daily takeoffs and landings.

Fewer flights wouldn't eliminate the problem. Helicopters approaching or leaving the airport using a route along the North Shore would still fly low over communities -- including East Hampton Village, Mattituck, Shelter Island, Sag Harbor Village and Sagaponack -- where the complaints have mushroomed this summer as helicopter traffic surged. But the din would be less frequent.

Unfortunately, going it alone and imposing those restrictions also would mean less money for the airport in landing fees and FAA assistance. The town would have to fund about $5 million projected to be spent in airport maintenance and repairs over the next five years. That's a financial hit East Hampton should be able to absorb, according to a town budget analysis.

If the FAA provides a substantial portion of the funding in grants, as it has previously, it insists on assurances of easy access to the airport and gives the town little room to reduce the traffic. However, four key contract assurances expire Dec. 31, opening up the opportunity for more local control.

The FAA designated a North Shore Helicopter Route between New York City and the Hamptons in 2008, the only such one in the nation. The flight path keeps helicopters 2,500 feet in the air and a mile out over the Long Island Sound until it angles south over land near Mattituck en route to the airport.

The FAA could provide now the fix some residents want -- extending that route east around Orient Point before it turns southwest to the airport. That would mitigate the problem by sending helicopters over fewer homes. But it adds 60 miles to the trip from New York City to the East End. And relief for residents now plagued with noise would come at the expense of residents under the new flight path.

Complaints about noise led to the creation of the North Shore route as an alternative to a flight path down the spine of the Island that bothered residents in western Suffolk. And helicopter operators say that if the FAA extends the route around Orient Point, many pilots would go back to that pre-2008 flight path.

There is no perfect fix that would eliminate helicopter noise. Not with mobile phone apps and crowdsourcing making it more convenient and affordable for the affluent to share the average $3,700 cost of a one-way flight. And nothing will happen in time to spare residents the racket during what's left of this summer season.

But by foregoing future FAA grants, town officials would be free next year to make whatever changes they choose to mitigate the noise. That also would make officials the target for any residents unhappy with their fix. That's the yin and yang of local control.