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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Whop! Whop! Trouble overhead

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

The Long Island Sound gently laps the shore as tall grasses dance in the breeze. Locals walk dogs on the sand at Iron Pier Beach Park in Jamesport. It's the still of the morning, broken only by the piercing cry of a gull.

Then a faint throbbing noise pricks one's ears. The sound builds steadily from the south, until a helicopter emerges over the tree line. As it roars overhead, it's all you can hear.

The din trails away as the chopper heads out over the Sound, returning to Manhattan. And peace reigns. Until the next helicopter emerges a few minutes later.

Welcome to the summer of the North Fork's discontent.

Residents are in a lather over the helicopters that have become an unwanted part of life. The anger is easy to understand. This is a place dotted with vineyards, farm stands and signs offering free manure. In the breaks between choppers, you appreciate why people moved here, and why others stayed.

And why hundreds have come to meetings in Southampton, East Hampton and Southold to complain about the noise. Nearly 400 turned out in Wainscott Wednesday night. They all have stories.

One Southold resident counted 34 helicopters in two hours. Another says they sometimes fly overhead every two minutes.

"The house vibrates and you hear them from way off," says Janice LoRusso of Jamesport. "And it's the whop, whop, WHOP, WHOP! Until it's right over your head."

LoRusso moved to Jamesport from Sag Harbor seven years ago. There were helicopters back then, too, but nowhere near as many. The choppers, bound for East Hampton Airport, used to travel mid-Island -- like an aerial LIE -- until the Federal Aviation Administration, responding to protests from western Suffolk residents, created an overwater city-to-Hamptons route a mile off the North Shore.

One visual cue for pilots to turn right and cross the North Fork is the Northville Industries platform off Iron Pier Beach Park.

This year, more are doing that than ever. Helicopter landings and takeoffs are up more than 40 percent, with riders taking advantage of new cellphone apps and crowdsourcing to split the cost of an average $3,700 one-way ticket.

"Some come super early in the morning and some fly late at night; it's very disruptive," says Teresa McCaskie of Mattituck. "The pilots are offering a beautiful scenic view of our coastline and vineyards . . . At whose expense? Our expense."

Every airport gets noise complaints, but not this many and not this loudly. There's no shortage of proposed remedies. Some want the airport to stop accepting FAA money, which would free it to set curfews or restrict the number of flights. Some want the FAA to force choppers to go around Orient Point before heading south. LoRusso agrees, but hits the problem on its whirly head: "There's no good way to go because, no matter what, you're going over people's homes."

Helicopter industry officials say the longer, more expensive Orient option would be an "unbelievable burden" for operators -- ignoring the unbelievable burden on residents.

A helicopter to the Hamptons is pure luxury convenience. Let's accept that the East End economy needs wealthy people and their expendable dollars. That shouldn't be at the expense of the peace, quiet and sanity of those not quite as well off, who live nowhere near the airport and who lived there well before the flights started.

Barring a Silicon Valley version of "Beam me up, Scotty," here's one other option to consider: The FAA should make a list of all of this year's helicopter patrons and plot multiple routes right over their houses.

And then let pilots pick.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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