Supreme Court Will Not Review East Hampton Airport Case

Durell Godfrey

The Town of East Hampton learned on Monday that the United States Supreme Court will not review a lower court decision that struck down three 2015 laws restricting access to the East Hampton Airport in order to reduce aircraft noise.

East Hampton had submitted a petition to the Supreme Court early this year in the hopes that it would review and uphold the laws: a once-a-week limit on takeoffs and landings at the municipal airport by planes that fall into a "noisy" category, and two overnight curfews, one with extended hours encompassing the noisy planes.

But on the Supreme Court's last day in session until the fall, amidst announcements regarding cases about which the justices will deliberate, East Hampton learned its airport case would not be on the docket.

The central question is whether local airport owners such as the town can exert control over airport use, in light of Federal Aviation Administration authority over general aviation airports — of which there are varying degrees depending on whether federal airport grants have been accepted. And if local owners can restrict use, under what conditions and how much?

Municipalities may apply for F.A.A. permission to institute limits on flights in order to reduce the impact of noise on surrounding areas through an application procedure called a Part 161 process, but East Hampton had argued unsuccessfully that it was exempt from that process based on a decision to forego new federal airport grants and on the expiration of contractual agreements with the F.A.A. that were imposed when previous grants were accepted.

Nonetheless, while waiting to learn what the Supreme Court might do, the town board recently hired Morrison Foerster, a law firm, to begin preparing a Part 161 application.

Aviation interests had sued the town after the curfew and restricted-access laws were adopted in the spring of 2015. The curfews were allowed to be instituted during the high summer season but the once-a-week limit was precluded by the court. However, an appeals court ruled against all three laws last fall.

Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said in a press release that the town board "is deeply disappointed" in the Supreme Court's decision. He noted, however, that the high court "gave serious consideration" to the petition, ordering the submission of a response from the aviation plaintiffs, a request made in only a small number of cases.

"Despite the outcome of this litigation, the town board will continue its efforts to find solutions to the problem of airport noise in our community, both through our elected representatives in Congress and through the onerous F.A.A. Part 161 process," Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the town board's liaison to the airport, said in the press release.

"We will not and cannot stop fighting to regain local control of our municipal airport. The federal government, and in particular the F.A.A., is incapable of managing the airport in the best interests of our community," she said. "We need local control in order to bring the much needed relief from aircraft noise."

In its own press release on Monday, Say No to KHTO, a local group formed to advocate for the closure of East Hampton Airport (called KHTO in aeronautical abbreviation), said that the Supreme Court decision leaves "only one practical option to gain local control over the airport . . . by closing it." Through its co-founder, Barry Raebeck, the group reissued its call to repurpose the 600-plus-acre airport for uses that will benefit the entire community.

Gaining the ability to control flights through the Part 161 process "has low odds of a favorable income," Mr. Raebeck said. "The residents and taxpayers of the East End (as well as beleaguered people from N.Y.C. to Orient Point) need to have our voices heard, need to have our rights defended, need to have our air, groundwater, skies, and habitats protected, and need to close the hazardous waste dump that is East Hampton Airport," he wrote in the release.

Meanwhile, the State Legislature this week passed legislation that would make future long-term financial agreements between the East Hampton Town Board and the F.A.A., such as the acceptance of airport grants and their accompanying "grant assurances," subject to a permissive referendum. The legislation was sponsored by East Hampton's state representatives, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, and will go to the governor's office to be signed.

"Federal aviation grants can last up to 20 years, resulting in a long-term impact on the community when they are accepted," Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle said in a joint press release.

The legislation allows the East Hampton Town Board to hold a permissive referendum when considering state or federal assistance for the airport, and gives residents the right to petition the town for a referendum should the board plan to accept an airport grant without first putting it to a public vote. The petition must be signed by at least 5 percent of residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election, and must be submitted within 30 days of a board vote to accept an airport grant.

The law "puts some of the decision-making power back into the hands of the community," Assemblyman Thiele said in the press release. "Town board members, who negotiate financing for the town airport, have terms that last only two years. Therefore, it's important that voters also have a say on these abiding agreements that will impact them for years to come."

"I fully support East Hampton's efforts to make decisions concerning their own airport," Senator LaValle said in the release.