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Political Risk in Airport Half-Measures

Thu, 12/09/2021 - 14:33

Editorial

What happens now that East Hampton Airport is under local control remains unclear despite years of talk. This is a sharp disappointment.

For decades, the fall of 2021 was understood to be the much-awaited end of Washington’s unyielding oversight. The obligation had come long ago, when the town had hopped into bed with the Federal Aviation Administration, taking money for big-ticket maintenance projects. But nothing is ever free, and the deal was that the airport remain open as a general aviation airport.

In the early days, the concern was jets, but as technology improved, jets have grown quieter. Helicopters may have been the best thing to happen to East Hampton’s passenger jets, at least in terms of complaints. Once regular shared helicopter service from Manhattan began, complaints about noise soared. Add to that the private helicopter trips of the very rich, and, for many East End residents, summer days outdoors became nearly intolerable.

The outcome of the recent town board election may have locked in an approach that will keep most aircraft flying. Even though a majority of East Hampton residents wants changes, successive town boards have always in the end sided with aircraft owners. Peter Van Scoyoc, who has supported closing the airport for as limited a time as possible then reopening it with tepid restrictions, won another term as supervisor. Also re-elected was Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who appeared to agree with Mr. Van Scoyoc during the campaign.

The only dissenting note came from Councilwoman-elect Cate Rogers, who had spoken in favor of a yearlong flight pause. As had been propounded by Councilman Jeff Bragman, who returns to private life at the end of the year, a 12-month ban on flights would give the town board adequate data on which to base long-term decisions about the airport. Without that, incremental policy changes would be based on speculation, he has argued persuasively.

While East Hampton Town has not neared an end game on the airport, those people who were involved in a series of recent “re-envisioning” workshops regarding its future might be wondering now what it all was for. During multiple meetings, members of the public were invited to weigh in with ideas for the site if the airport were closed. Among these were restoring it as grassland habitat or building affordable housing — both have their appeal.

In an election year, the workshops were an effective way to turn down the heat on the issue. The sessions made for good theater and gave an impression that the town was open to all options, but it now seems the board members had already made up their minds to keep it operational. This could backfire on the town if the opponents and activists who were given false hope get even angrier. The study-and-see approach that has taken hold could test the patience of too many residents.

The town board and its airport backers should remember that it would take just three votes to close it for good. It is not hard to imagine that local candidates who favored that drastic step could succeed in taking over the Democratic ballot line in a primary or wrest control of the party committee and cruise to victory. Meaningful leadership on airport issues is in everyone’s interest.


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