“I think this is a really important step that we’re making today, where we finally, as a town, will assert control over an airport that we own but had no ability to regulate,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said after the town board voted unanimously last Thursday to file the appropriate forms with the Federal Aviation Administration to deactivate East Hampton Airport.
The airport will be permanently “closed” in its current model on Feb. 28, but will be opened anew as of March 4 as a private-use airport. That date was chosen after discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration and a review of past operations at the airport. The board anticipates little disruption to aviation, as there has historically been little flight activity on the dates during which it will not be available.
After March 4, the airport will be subject to local control under what the F.A.A. calls a prior-permission-required framework. Under this framework, advance clearance is required before an aircraft may use the airport. It will initially mirror that of a public-use airport, but the board, in a statement issued after the vote, promised that “substantive restrictions will be implemented” prior to the summer season in conjunction with a data collection period pursuant to the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act.
The move follows years of residents’ complaints — from East Hampton and surrounding towns — about the airport’s impact on their quality of life.
“We look forward to working with the community to address longstanding concerns” and “balance the airport in a way that really reflects the community’s standards” while protecting quality of life and providing the positive amenities of an airport, Mr. Van Scoyoc said last Thursday.
The new model, according to a statement issued by the town, gives East Hampton flexibility to control the use of the air navigation facilities so as to respond to community concerns while also allowing certain aeronautical uses to continue. “The town board believes that obtaining maximum flexibility over future operations is necessary to ensure that the entire community’s quality of life — from Wainscott to Montauk — is thoroughly considered and protected.”
Around 40 people, including residents of East Hampton and Southampton Towns and from as far as New York City, some of them professional pilots, called in to the town board’s work session on Jan. 18 to weigh in on the airport. Some urged the board to close the airport permanently, while others said that its operations should be maintained as is or with minimal changes. Many residents of Montauk fear that the closure of East Hampton Airport will divert traffic, particularly helicopters, to the privately owned airport in that hamlet.
Before last Thursday’s vote, Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni called in to the meeting to congratulate his East Hampton counterparts “for your due diligence” and for making a “challenging” decision on a contentious issue. “Here in the Town of Southampton, we have supported your efforts over the years . . . to get to this point,” he said, before asking the board to “keep in mind air traffic over your neighbors to the west.”
“Operation of a private-use airport will enable us to review and analyze potential changes to airport operations and make adjustments to address long-held community concerns,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said in a statement issued after the vote.
The move was quickly denounced by aviation interests. “East Hampton Town’s reliance on faulty legal advice to close the East Hampton Airport without a realistic plan to have it reopen is misguided, reckless, and will ultimately prove disastrous for the surrounding communities like Southampton, Southold, and especially Montauk,” said Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Eastern Regional Helicopter Council. “Closing the East Hampton Airport will not only further harm the local economy and potentially delay emergency responders, but also force helicopters and other aviation to other local airports. This diverted air traffic to the other airports will not only exacerbate noise concerns and hectic air traffic but also further exacerbate the already overcrowded roads.”
“We were disappointed to see the town choose the path that it did,” Melissa Tomkiel, president and general counsel of Blade, which offers by-the-seat booking on helicopter, seaplane, and jet flights between New York City and the South Fork, said on Monday. “We don’t think it’s the right way to address noise concerns.”
Residents and visitors to the South Fork will continue to fly, Ms. Tomkiel said. “Now, they’re just going to fly to different places.” The board’s move, she said, “is really shifting the problem to other communities, specifically Montauk and Sag Harbor and Westhampton and Southampton. There’s plenty of other landing zones in those towns and villages, but they do not have the infrastructure that East Hampton Airport does. So it will not be as organized, and also is going to create logistical issues for aircraft because there’s no fuel at most of those” facilities. More flights, and more road traffic, will result from restrictions at East Hampton Airport, she said.
Tom Bogdan, a Montauk resident who has repeatedly raised the concern that restrictions at East Hampton Airport will divert traffic to that hamlet’s privately owned airport, was also critical of the board’s move. “I think Montauk is going to be inundated with airport traffic starting June 22,” he said. The board has “no plans for doing anything about it, so Montauk is in for a terrible summer of traffic.”
The traffic he predicts includes that of vehicles on East Lake Drive, near the end of which is Montauk Airport, 4.4 miles from Montauk’s downtown. “That’s a small road,” he said. “It doesn’t have soft shoulders; people walk, use bikes, there are huge fish trucks,” and there are multiple construction projects in development on the winding road. “It’s going to be a zoo,” he said. “That goes for Main Street, too, and the Old and New Highways, the only access” to Montauk by land.
But East Lake Drive is “more equipped than the Meadow Lane facility,” Ms. Tomkiel said of the Southampton Heliport. Only one helicopter can land there at a time, she said, so “if there’s any sort of traffic there, it can be overwhelming, with multiple aircraft circling, hovering. It’s not meant for the sort of volume that infrastructure like East Hampton Airport can handle.”
Nancy Keeshan, a Montauk resident who is a private and commercial pilot, agreed that helicopters are noisy, but likened the board’s move to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” She learned to fly at East Hampton Airport, she said, and that “really won’t be an option for any young people in the Hamptons anymore,” which is particularly sad for women, who she said comprise just 6 percent of pilots. Learning to fly was life-changing, she said. “It’s heartbreaking to me, because it’s where I found my passion,” she said of the airport.
Blade is “looking at any and all viable alternatives,” Ms. Tomkiel said. “Infrastructure as far as heliports, airports — anything that is available to us.”
“We urge the town council members to divert from the legal advisers’ radical, dangerous, and faulty course to close the airport,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said, “and instead work with the aviation experts on a solution that works for everyone. The aviation industry remains open and available to work with the town as we have continuously asked to be during this process.”