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Town’s Airport Plan Still Disappointing to Many

Thu, 01/13/2022 - 11:16
Speakers at recent meetings of the East Hampton Town Board and Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee were disappointed by the town board’s plan to keep East Hampton Airport open, albeit with restrictions on operations there.
Durell Godfrey

The East Hampton Town Board’s plan to enact restrictions on operations at East Hampton Airport, announced in Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s State of the Town address last week, appears to have done little to alleviate the concerns of residents on the South and North Forks, some of whom voiced their disappointment at last Thursday’s board meeting and Saturday’s Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee meeting.

The board, Mr. Van Scoyoc said last week, has concluded that “the best approach is to transition to a private-use airport” — following the September expiration of federal grant assurances, returning control to the town — “which will allow us to put in place restrictions that are specifically targeted to improve residents’ quality of life and improve the environment by reducing emissions.”

But none of the nine callers to last Thursday’s virtual meeting were supportive of the approach, with many urging the airport’s permanent closure. Some accused the board of hypocrisy, noting its 2021 declaration of a climate emergency — which mandates climate mitigation and the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions as a principle and objective guiding all aspects of town business, and which seems to fly in the face of how the airport operates. Also of concern to callers is the sole-source aquifer from which residents derive drinking water and the potential impact of the aviation fuel that is stored at the airport, just above it.

Both Mr. Van Scoyoc, at last Thursday’s meeting, and Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, at the Wainscott committee meeting, said that the airport’s closure remains a possibility should the board’s actions with respect to airport operations prove ineffective.

Barry Raebeck, a co-founder of the Quiet Skies Coalition, said at the Wainscott meeting that he shares the widely held concern “that the restrictions will be merely ramming more aircraft into a lesser time frame, which could worsen the impact,” in terms of noise, “if you have curfews limiting the times people can fly.”

But the larger issue is the environment, he said, referring to the now near-constant reports of extreme weather events. “I don’t want to sound harsh, but I do think these are really, arguably, desperate times. I think many people now are saying the climate crisis, it’s a crisis. It’s not climate change, it’s climate catastrophe. . . . The town has a chance to send a real powerful message: We can do something right now to help save the planet.”

Anthony Liberatore of the Wainscott committee said that a fuel facility sitting atop an aquifer is “an insanely stupid thing to have” and asked that its continued existence be part of the discussion. He would feel better, he said, “if that was not sitting like a Damocles sword” over residents’ drinking water.

At the board’s meeting last Thursday, Patricia Currie, a co-founder of Say No to KHTO, which advocates for a more environmentally friendly use of the airport property, said that the group expected that the board would end the sale of “dirty aviation fuel at the airport, where over a million gallons were sold” in the first 11 months of 2021. “We are appalled that the town acceded to demands of those who profit from or use KHTO,” the airport’s aviation designation, “and whose nonessential flights endanger public safety and health, degrade our environment, threaten our children’s future, and erode quality of life across the East End. We do not accept that operating a private airport for 1 percent is a balanced outcome for the community.”

Carolyn Logan Gluck, the Wainscott committee’s chairwoman, read a letter that the committee previously sent to the board. Citing noise pollution, public safety, and environmental stewardship, the consensus of the committee is that the airport should be closed. “While full closure is preferred,” the letter continues, “at a minimum, helicopters, jets, seaplanes, and other similar modes of transport, current or future (including drones), should not be permitted to land” at the airport “under any circumstances other than medical emergencies or storm evacuation/resupply.”

An East Hampton Airport open only to hobbyists flying small planes, the letter continued, should be allowed only if aviation fuel is not sold and any use changes proposed by future administrations are subject to public referendum prior to implementation.

“Personally,” Ms. Overby told the committee on Saturday, “I endorse what was written and said and support you in moving forward” with those recommendations.

At the town board meeting, Sheryl Gold, who also spoke at the Wainscott group’s meeting, said she was disappointed and dissatisfied with the board’s plan. “Why should the needs of the residents, whose quality of life, health, and public safety have been compromised, be balanced with others’ needs?” she asked. “Does the balance include the needs of aviation interests and the convenience of the 1 percent?” She said that residents had been “misled, intentionally or not, by the term ‘re-envisioning’ as including uses other than an airport.”

Like Ms. Gold, Barry Frankel, who sits on the Wainscott citizens committee, said that last September’s public workshops intended to solicit and gauge opinion as to the airport’s future were “seriously flawed in terms of developing a consensus forecast of the opinion of the community.” The airport “needs to be either severely curtailed or wound down,” he said, “and that other uses more effective to the economy of East Hampton can be made.”

“Routes, curfews, and other topical attempts to fix the situation, they’re just not going to work,” said Adam Irving of Orient. “Somebody always gets the noise, somebody always gets the pollution, and for years it has been the North Fork.” He asked that the board “make the tough call: Close the airport. It’s really the only long-term solution, and tens of thousands of negatively impacted residents” from New York City to the North and South Forks “will be forever grateful.”

Southold Town “has been very clear,” he said. “We don’t want the Hamptons-bound air traffic noise, we don’t want the pollution.”

John Kirrane of the Noyac Civic Council said that his neighbors in Southampton Town are likewise “stunned and disappointed with the approach to anything short of closing the airport.” The workshops and studies, he said, “surely pointed to only one answer . . . which was repurposing the airport property for the good of the whole East End community.”

No callers to either meeting supported maintaining the airport as is. But after four advocates for its closure described as a red herring a study that examined if and how closure would divert air traffic to the privately owned Montauk Airport, Tom Bogdan of the easternmost hamlet said insistently that “Montauk is not a red herring.” In October, he said, the more than 550 people who attended a meeting about the fate of East Hampton Airport said that their quality of life and property values would be negatively affected should it be closed. “At that particular meeting, representatives from at least four different airlines talked and told us that they would use Montauk as one of their primary alternates if the East Hampton Airport closes,” he said.

At the town board’s work session on Tuesday, Mr. Van Scoyoc described a meeting last Thursday with Federal Aviation Administration officials as “a fruitful and positive discussion.” The board hopes to discuss further the airport’s transition during the next work session, on Tuesday, he said.

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