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The Chicago Precedent

Wed, 05/18/2022 - 09:38


One Sunday night in 2003, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago shocked his city by sending earth-moving equipment to tear up the runways at a Chicago airport. With a judge’s decision to at least temporarily block town officials from imposing tough new restrictions at East Hampton Airport, an increasing number of people wish for a Mayor Daley moment here.

Meigs Field came into being following the end of World War II, built on a man-made island that had once been envisioned as a public park on the city’s lakefront. Meigs, named after a newspaper publisher, was home base for a large number of private aircraft and from time to time during its history, commercial flights. By 1955, Meigs was the country’s busiest single-strip airport, with some 40,000 flights every year. But it was also an annoyance to some Chicagoans who lived nearby and, potentially, prime parkland, and as far back as the 1970s Chicago mayors had considered closing it. But, as in East Hampton, the city had earlier taken money from the Federal Aviation Administration that tied its officials’ hands until 2001; East Hampton’s so-called grant assurances that its airport would remain open ran out last fall.

The future site for Meigs Field was used for the 1933 World’s Fair, whose theme was “Century of Progress.” The single runway was just under 3,900 feet long, and there were four helicopter pads at one end. In 1972, the first Mayor Daley, Richard M. Daley’s father, proposed closing it. The city first announced its intention to do so in 1992; Mayor Daley the younger announced plans for a park there in 1996, but the State of Illinois stopped him. Sunrise came on March 31, 2003, and the city and aviation world discovered that deep X-shape gouges had been dug overnight with heavy construction equipment, leaving the facility unusable. Sixteen planes that had been parked there when the destruction began were eventually allowed to fly out, using a parallel taxiway. That summer, construction of the park began.

There was little that anyone could have done to stop the mayor. The F.A.A. issued a $33,000 fine to the city and forced the repayment of money taken from an airport account to pay for work on the park. Congress eventually increased the maximum fines for failing to alert the F.A.A. to an impending airport closure 30 days in advance to $10,000. There is little chance that the City of Chicago would rebuild Meigs Field, though a candidate in the 2019 mayoral primary had included the idea in his 10-point plan.

Like Chicago in 2003, East Hampton Town owns its airport and is now free of its promises to the F.A.A. But unlike in the Windy City, there is a large and growing contingent of residents who say East Hampton’s should be closed. Aviation interests, including charter helicopter companies, are banking on an assumption that the town would not take that drastic step. However, as they use the courts to frustrate any attempt to cut down on noise and pollution, they are also increasing public demands for real change. Their all-or-nothing approach may leave them in the end with exactly that: nothing. In the end, there really is no way to stop a town board majority from ordering the bulldozers to roll.


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