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Time to close East Hampton Airport

East Hampton Town officials are weighing whether to

East Hampton Town officials are weighing whether to shutter or modify operations at the airport in Wainscott after federal mandates expire in September 2021. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

As East Enders know all too well, air traffic coming through East Hampton Airport (KHTO) has been a quality of life and environmental blight on our region for decades. Now, for the first time in 20 years, the Town of East Hampton can ground the airport. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to shut it down — and re-imagine it as a place that serves and protects the entire community.

The 554 acres of town-owned KHTO not in commercial use as storefronts exist for the sole purpose of serving less than 1% of our community and its visitors. Meanwhile, not a single dollar of the airport’s revenue and the substantial rental income from small businesses on its apron benefits East Hampton residents. Instead, these funds benefit only the airport itself.

In fact, if the town eliminated commercial aircraft from KHTO, it would lose only $15 to $20 million in passenger spending, a drop in the bucket compared to our $3 billion summer economy, and virtually nothing when compared to the damage done to our air, water and quality of life.

In total, aircraft using KHTO emit approximately 51.5 million pounds of carbon emissions each year. And, the air traffic contaminates the Magothy Aquifer — which provides drinking water to the entire East End. An independent expert recently concluded that East Hampton is "particularly vulnerable to the effects of pollution from airport related water contamination."

Shockingly, there is a 47-acre water pollution state Superfund site at the airport contaminating our aquifer. Much of the water in Wainscott is now undrinkable.

In 2016, East Hampton’s attempt to impose curfews and noise controls on the airport was thwarted by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which effectively ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration controlled the airport. Since then, high-volume traffic from prolific commercial operators such as Blade and NetJets has contributed to severe noise and environmental pollution, the inevitable byproduct of the court’s disastrous opinion.

Despite what the special interests protecting the airport may say, the truth is their visiting has little-to-no direct economic benefit to our town. More than that, the private interests leading the turf-roots effort to protect the airport include a former private jet travel service CEO and the manager of the airport’s car rental outlet, both of whom have doubled down on spreading false claims that the airport is necessary for emergency rescue services.

Contrary to their absurd assertions, helicopters do not require an airport or even a pad to land and medevac operations have taken place at Haven’s Beach, Noyac’s Long Beach and Montauk Outlook.

But hope is here as we finally have an opportunity to ground KHTO for good and create something new that meaningfully serves the entire community.

As KHTO’s federal grant obligations expire in the coming weeks, control of the airport reverts from the FAA to the East Hampton Town Board, which finally can end decades of injustice. The board’s own commissioned reports have concluded the economic contribution from the airport is modest at best, and there are substantial quality of life and environmental benefits to shutting it down.

We may never again get an opportunity to take ownership of our skies. The East Hampton Town Board members will be heroes when they put people over planes and private profits.

Opinions expressed by Barry Raebeck, an East Hampton Town resident since 1957 and co-founder and director of the Coalition to Transform East Hampton Airport, are his own.

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