Times have indeed changed regarding East Hampton Airport, but so far, not all elected town officials appear to have taken notice. This may be changing — during a meeting Saturday, East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby expressed her support for closing the airport entirely or, failing that, imposing the strictest limits possible.
Tensions have risen rather than fallen in the days since Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc vaguely said he favored restrictions on the timing of flights in and out of the airport, rather than the aggressive steps that East End residents want. The Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, whose members were appointed by the town board, has argued that the time has come to close the airport entirely; it has not expressed its support for what Mr. Van Scoyoc described as a “prior-permission model” in which aircraft operators would have to ask first to use the runways and associated facilities. By contrast, the Wainscott committee has said that in the event that the airport remains open, “at a minimum, helicopters, jets, seaplanes, and other similar modes of transport, current or future (including drones), should not be permitted to land.” In addition, private aircraft kept at the airport should be allowed to remain only on condition that fuel sales there be discontinued. And, further, that any subsequent changes at the airport be by public referendum only.
In addition to Ms. Overby, the close-the-airport advocates may have a town board ally in Councilwoman Cate Rogers. Ms. Rogers joined the board just this month, after winning a seat in the November election. During the campaign, she said she favored an end to commercial flights, helicopters, and jets. As she saw it, the need was for immediately reducing noise and cutting down on the airport’s carbon footprint, in line with the town’s stated climate goals.
There were 47,000 noise complaints about the airport in 2019. Contrast that with an in-person survey that showed that fewer than 1 percent of property owners, renters, and visitors arrive or depart via the airport each year. Of those people using commercial services, such as helicopters, seaplanes, and charter aircraft, the survey authors found that nearly two-thirds of them would find other ways to get to the East End if the airport no longer existed.
On social media, public meetings, and road signs, aviation interests have vastly overstated the number of airport-specific jobs that could be eliminated and repeatedly exaggerated its importance as a medical emergency landing field. A compelling rationale for keeping the airport open with limited landing and takeoff hours, as the supervisor proposed, has yet to be made. By contrast, the arguments for closing it altogether are getting clearer with every passing day.
What is particularly odd at this moment is that Town Hall still seems to have no plan, despite knowing for years that it was going to regain control of the airport in the fall. As officials were aware as long ago as the 1990s, East Hampton’s power-sharing agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration would end in September 2021. If cowardice or incompetence is not to blame, the fact that there is nothing in place now seems, most charitably, to be have been a deliberate strategy to maintain the status quo, despite all the public opposition. That opposition may now be getting too loud to continue to ignore.