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Mixed News for Town in Latest Airport Ruling

Thu, 03/28/2024 - 17:26
Durell Godfrey

A ruling by a four-judge panel of the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division affirmed on Wednesday that the court had properly determined that East Hampton Town failed to comply with procedural requirements of the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act when it briefly closed and reopened the airport in 2022.  

The Appellate Division panel sided with the town, however, in agreeing that a $250,000 penalty for civil contempt and fine of $1,000 per day for each day that the town did not comply with a 2022 temporary restraining order were improper. The T.R.O. and subsequent penalty and fine had been imposed by the now-retired Justice Paul Baisley, who consistently sided with plaintiffs in the lawsuits jointly brought by airport users and several residents of the town. 

With the Appellate Division's ruling, the pitched battle pitting the town -- which attempted to act on many residents' longstanding complaints that an explosion in air traffic in recent years was ruinous to their quality of life -- against plaintiffs who sought to prevent the imposition of a prior-permission-required framework and restrictions on flight activity, appears to be settled at least to the extent that the town cannot close the airport, either temporarily, as it did in 2022 to change the facility from public to private-use, or permanently, as town officials have suggested could happen as a last resort, without following procedures set in the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, or ANCA. 

"The Supreme Court properly determined that the town’s complained-of action was affected by an error of law and was arbitrary and capricious," the panel wrote in a decision entered on Wednesday, "as the town failed to comply with the applicable procedural requirements of ANCA. Contrary to the [town's] contentions, the procedural requirements of ANCA at issue here applied to the town’s determination to close the airport as a public-use airport and reopen it a few days later as a private-use airport."

The town board, in consultation with outside counsel and the Federal Aviation Administration, had voted in January 2022 to briefly deactivate and permanently "close" the airport as it had existed and "reopen" just 33 hours later as a private-use airport with curfews and restrictions in place aimed at addressing upward of 70 percent of complaints. The move came four months after the expiration of federal grant assurance obligations which had precluded such action. 

It was quickly followed by the filing of lawsuits seeking to prevent the town from carrying out its plan. Blade Air Mobility, which offers helicopter and seaplane flights between Manhattan and the South Fork; East End Hangars, and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open, each joined by several individuals, successfully sued to thwart the plan, with Justice Baisley imposing a T.R.O. on May 16, 2022, one day before the deactivation was to happen. 

The town appealed and, rather than studying the impacts of the P.P.R. framework "in real time" with the curfews and restrictions in place as intended, began an extensive review under the State Environmental Quality review Act. On March 13, the town board held a public hearing on a draft generic environmental impact statement prepared by consultants regarding the proposed operational changes at the airport. 

But "ANCA’s procedural mandates for local laws restricting noise and access to public airports apply to all public airport proprietors without regard to their eligibility for federal funding," the panel wrote, "and, accordingly, the plaintiffs in that action were entitled to a preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of the local laws."

With regard to the penalty and fine, the panel wrote that the plaintiffs "did not establish actual damages, and, accordingly, to the extent that the Supreme Court imposed monetary sanctions in the sum of $250,000 as a penalty for the [town's] civil contempt, they may only recover reasonable costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, plus a statutory fine in the sum of $250."

The Supreme Court "should not have imposed a fine against the town in the sum of $1,000 per day," the panel wrote. The plaintiffs had not requested that, they wrote, and the town was not provided sufficient notice that it could be held in contempt.

James Catterson, an attorney representing East End Hangars, said in a statement issued by a public relations firm on Thursday that "The town sought to convince the appellate court that previous rulings that prevented them from closing the airport were wrong. The court's unequivocal decision is consistent with every previous court decision which has denied the town motions and a reminder that the town has been held in contempt in its lawfare against this airport."

"Despite multiple attempts to appeal the state court's decisions," Mr. Catterson added, "the town has lost at every turn."

The East Hampton Community Alliance, which advocates keeping the airport open, said in a statement to The Star that “With legal proceedings coming to an end, E.H.C.A. remains committed to working with the community and town board to ensure the future of East Hampton Airport.”

According to a statement issued from Town Hall on Thursday night, the town is "deeply disappointed in the outcome of the appeals. The town proceeded in good faith to find a solution to address the long-standing noise and environmental impacts from the Airport on the town and its surrounding communities and remains committed to that goal, as the status quo is not acceptable."

The town board is reviewing its options with counsel and assessing a way forward, the statement read, "including seeking clarification from the courts and the F.A.A. regarding the town’s rights and obligations with respect to the airport and any additional procedural steps that need to be
taken prior to implementing proposed restrictions as part of the town’s ongoing environmental review. The East Hampton Town Airport remains open to the public and fully operational." 

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




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