Ax to Fall on 20 Acres Near East Hampton Airport

F.A.A. cites trees’ intrusion on runway airspace
Sections of the woods on both ends of runway 10-28, across Daniel’s Hole Road from the East Hampton Town Airport, and at the runway’s end will be cut down to remove them from the Federal Aviation Administration’s required clear zone. Durell Godfrey

A plan to cut down sections of the woods near the East Hampton Airport, removing trees that have grown tall enough to intrude on a runway clear zone, has some environmentalists and airport watchdogs up in arms.

The East Hampton Environmental Coalition said this week that its members are “deeply concerned about the serious disruption of the vegetative cover of our single-source aquifer. . . .” The ecological impact of the clearing, they said, should be examined before any work goes ahead.

The Federal Aviation Administration put East Hampton Town, which owns the airport, on notice after a flyover inspection in 2013 showed that trees had grown into a required clear zone.    The agency mandates a clear zone within a three-dimensional space running  from the edge of the runway pavement up, at an angle. For a time, with the tall trees intruding into that zone, the F.A.A. suspended authorization for nighttime landings here using an instrument-only approach, citing safety concerns.

The town had its airport engineers investigate, and a plan was created to do the work. The plan would eliminate trees at both ends of runway 10-28, across Daniel’s Hole Road from the airport and at the runway’s other end, as well as in a small area alongside an airport taxiway.

Removing the trees entirely, rather than trimming only their tops to a height below the clear zone, will in the long run create less disturbance to the forest, Marguerite Wolffsohn, the town’s planning director, said yesterday. The understory vegetation would remain, and eventually the oaks and pitch pines that predominate in the area will sprout again.

“Topping” the trees instead, Ms. Wolffsohn said, would have to be done repeatedly, and going in to do the work would compact soil and damage understory plants each time. Her assessment was based, she said, on “assuming that we need this for safety — are we doing this in the right way?”

There are about 1,000 acres of woodland, she said, that had been preserved with an emphasis on protecting the rarer and more ecologically valuable interior forest rather than its edges.

Concerns about the tree removal plan  arose not just over its environmental impact but whether its scope — removing trees above a certain imaginary slope line rising from the edge of the runway — is larger than it need be. David Gruber, an East Hampton attorney long involved in airport matters, has argued that the clear zone that would be created is beyond that required by the F.A.A.

The amount of tree clearing proposed meets design standards for runways serving more planes, and larger ones, than those classified for East Hampton Airport, according to Mr. Gruber, who is a member of the town’s airport management committee and chairman of an independent airport noise committee.

But the standard is set, Jemille Charlton, the airport manager, said Tuesday, based on what kind of aircraft are using the airport, which is everything from turboprop planes to Gulfstream jets.

“Our membership is uniformly opposed to this alteration of our woodlands without a scientific analysis of the consequences of this deforestation, without a frank assessment of the presumed benefits to the safety and efficiency of the operation of the airport, and without a balanced assessment of the interests of our citizens in preservation of our natural woodlands versus the expansion of aviation operations at our airport,” the East Hampton Environmental Coalition said in a release.

The town board has put a vote on issuing a bond for the work, originally scheduled for tonight, on hold so the project can be more fully vetted, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the liaison for airport matters, said yesterday. The deadline for the submission of bids to do the clearing has been extended to Oct. 20. An environmental assessement is being don on the impact of the proposed work, which will be discussed at an upcoming airport management advisery committee meeting on Oct. 28. That meeting, to begin at 9 a.m. at Town Hall, will be open to the public.