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Judge Says East Hampton Town Violated Airport Order, Must Pay $250K

Sat, 05/20/2023 - 18:34
A Blade helicopter landing at the East Hampton Airport. Blade Air Mobility is one of the entities that sued East Hampton Town over its plan to temporary close the airport and reopen it as a private facility with new restrictions.
Durell Godfrey

A New York State Supreme Court Justice has once again sided with plaintiffs who sued East Hampton Town over the 2022 plan to briefly close and reopen East Hampton Town Airport as a private facility with restrictions on flight operations.

Justice Paul Baisley Jr. on Friday held the town in civil contempt for violating a temporary restraining order he issued a year ago, which directs the town against effectively converting the public airport to a private one or imposing restrictions on flights. In coordination with outside counsel, the town had planned to implement the changes to address complaints about incessant air traffic, particularly of helicopters and jets.

The town will appeal the decision, according to a statement issued by Town Hall on Monday. The town is “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, according to that statement. “In its capacity as proprietor of East Hampton Town Airport, the town board has always held the belief that it had a public policy responsibility to protect local residents from the loud and disturbing effects of aircraft noise, and has sought to provide residents who are impacted with meaningful and deserved relief.”

The judge had issued the restraining order following oral arguments in parallel lawsuits challenging the plan brought by Blade Air Mobility, East End Hangars, and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open, as well as several individuals who live near an airport that could see increased traffic due to diversion from East Hampton Airport.

The town, Justice Baisley ordered on Friday, must pay the plaintiffs $250,000. He also imposed a fine of $1,000 per day “for each day it fails to comply with the T.R.O. from the date of this order,” and ordered the town to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees for costs associated with the contempt motions.

“The principal contention of the petitioners,” he wrote, is that the town violated the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, when it adopted a Jan. 20, 2022, resolution to deactivate and permanently “close” the airport in its current model and reopen it as a private-use airport. The board, in a statement issued after that vote, promised that “substantive restrictions will be implemented” prior to the summer season in conjunction with a data collection period pursuant to SEQRA. In addition to violating SEQRA, Justice Baisley ruled, the town “acted in excess of its jurisdiction, and that its action was arbitrary and capricious.”

The plaintiffs contend that the town violated the temporary restraining order “by enforcing several of the ‘new use restrictions’ “ and that it is enforcing “proposed new rules and regulations” for the airport, requiring “planes and helicopters to power down completely before loading and unloading passengers and cargo, resulting in cooling down periods of up to 20-30 minutes before reignition can take place which effectively doubles the amount of time that aircraft must remain grounded between flights.”

The plaintiffs also maintain that the town “intends to close the airport permanently rather than permit the airport to operate without the new use restrictions,” the judge wrote, and that the town is “compelling aircraft operators to meet new indemnification and insurance requirements covering the town in order to receive access to special flight instrument landing procedures, effectively making it harder to afford to use the airport.”

The town, he wrote, contends that after the restraining order was issued it asked the Federal Aviation Administration to halt the conversion of the airport from its previous designation, HTO, to that under its would-be private status, JPX. The request was denied, HTO was deactivated, and JPX was activated on May 19, 2022, the date the airport was to reopen under a prior-permission-required framework. “As a result, it is the town’s position that the town has the right and responsibility of controlling all operational and safety aspects of the airport,” Justice Baisley wrote. “The town asserts that in fact HTO no longer exists as it was deactivated on May 18, 2022, and that this court’s T.R.O. says nothing about day-to-day policies at JPX.” This is irrelevant, he wrote.

“The town further asserts that the T.R.O. was prohibitory, not mandatory,” he wrote, “and that the town has complied with that prohibitory order.” It also contends that any effort to close the airport “when legally possible” does not violate the restraining order. The board, since issuance of the order, has held discussions with its outside counsel regarding potential paths to the airport’s closure. “This action directly defies the T.R.O.,” he wrote, “which expressly prohibits the town from closing the airport or taking any steps to effectuate the closure of the airport.”

Citing use restrictions, steps taken toward the airport’s closure, and a period of time after the T.R.O.’s issuance in which the town suspended review of airport users’ applications for special instrument landing procedures, he said that “Undisputably [sic], these ‘new use restrictions’ that restrict public access to the airport violate the T.R.O.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys are to submit “a bill of costs and affirmation of services” within 45 days, the judge ordered.

In a statement provided on Monday, James Catterson, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs, called the decision “fair and measured.” The town, he said, “has a well-documented history of ignoring court orders, acting in an arbitrary and capricious manner, and being held in contempt. Actions have consequences and we are hopeful that the town will immediately cease its new use restrictions and comply with the court’s order.” Taxpaying residents, he said, “should not have to continue to pay for the town’s misguided belief that it is somehow above the law.”

Note: This article has been updated since it originally appeared online.

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