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Town Fights Airport Contempt Ruling

Thu, 06/22/2023 - 11:25
While the status of East Hampton Town Airport remains the subject of litigation, it’s business as usual for those traveling by air to and from the South Fork, and for residents who say the airport has ruined their quality of life.
Durell Godfrey

The East Hampton Town Board filed a request with the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division on June 14 to expedite its review of the town’s appeals regarding the future of East Hampton Town Airport. This came a month after a State Supreme Court justice held the town in civil contempt for violating the temporary restraining order he issued 13 months ago enjoining the town from converting the public airport to private status or imposing restrictions on flight activity.

In response, Blade Air Mobility, East End Hangars, and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open — which sued the town in 2022 after the town board announced a plan to briefly close and reopen the airport with curfews and other restrictions on aircraft operations in place — filed a cross-motion arguing that the town has no standing to seek a stay of Justice Paul Baisley’s May 19 contempt order.

Associate Justice Cheryl Chambers of the Second Judicial Department did not grant the town’s request for an interim stay of Justice Baisley’s contempt order, but a decision is expected

soon pending a review of the town’s and the petitioners’ arguments for and against it, an official speaking on background said on Tuesday.

In his ruling last month, Justice Baisley ordered that the town must pay the plaintiffs $250,000 and 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.” He also ordered the town to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees for costs associated with the contempt motions.

After issuing a temporary restraining order in May 2022, hours before the airport was to close for 33 hours before reopening with a prior-permission-required framework in place, Justice Baisley ruled in October that, by planning to conduct an environmental impact statement after the airport’s closure and reopening, the town “has acted both beyond its legal abilities and in an arbitrary and capricious manner” and is therefore prohibited from closing it. He also sided with the plaintiffs’ argument that the town was not in compliance with the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act’s procedural requirements for adopting noise and access restrictions affecting certain aircraft.

Last month, he sided with the plaintiffs a second time, holding the town in civil contempt for violating the T.R.O., which enjoins the town from effectively converting the public airport to a private one or imposing restrictions on flight activity.

In their cross-motion, the plaintiffs called the town’s request for expedited review “nothing more than a regurgitation of the town’s two previous applications to this Court [to] modify the T.R.O., both of which were summarily denied.” The town, they contend, continues to violate the court’s orders both by imposing new use restrictions and “misappropriating” airport funds to pay outside counsel to determine and implement actions to close the airport.

The plaintiffs further assert that “not even a finding of contempt will stop the town from continuing to siphon off airport funds — potentially rendering the airport insolvent — to continue to pay its counsel to bring frivolous applications attempting to modify [the] Supreme Court’s well-reasoned and duly-entered orders.”

In a statement last Thursday, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that “There is a common misconception that the town board is attempting to starve the airport from all resources so it will permanently close. Nothing could be further from the truth. We continue to invest in infrastructure and in our airport employees, who tirelessly manage an increasingly commercial and complex airport environment.” 

A “fact sheet” distributed by the town last week asserts that the town “only uses airport funds consistent with federal law, including when paying professionals to advise the town regarding its rights and responsibilities to regulate the airport and to defend itself in court if necessary.”

The plaintiffs also argued that the town is violating the T.R.O. by imposing what they call new use restrictions, requiring planes and helicopters to power down completely before loading and unloading passengers and cargo, effectively doubling the amount of time that aircraft must remain grounded between flights. “It is axiomatic that such engine shutdown necessarily decrease[s] the number of trips an operator can make and effectively limit access to and use of the airport,” according to their cross-motion.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday that the town has not enforced that requirement since Justice Baisley’s contempt ruling last month. In last Thursday’s statement, he argued that Justice Baisley’s holding the town in civil contempt “for enforcing common-sense safety rules is a serious public health and safety concern justifying emergency relief.”

“The town remains committed to protecting residents from the loud and disturbing effects of aircraft noise and to addressing the impact to our environment from an airport that is no longer compatible with the community,” he said. “The town board believes it has taken lawful and necessary steps to protect the quality of life on the East End of Long Island and to run a safe airport.”

The town will continue to work to “balance community and pilot interests to allow for an airport that reflects the community standards of East Hampton,” he said. “Otherwise, the future of East Hampton is unlikely to include an airport at all.”

 

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