“Consideration of the future use of the airport” — this is the heart of a public invitation from the East Hampton Town Board for a Tuesday meeting at which the perennially problematic airfield will, we hope, be honestly discussed. Undergirding the discussion is a recent study that has put the airport in a stark new light.
Contrary to assumption, East Hampton Airport is not nearly as economically important as it in the past had been said to be. Among its stunning findings is that passengers using it account for at most 3 percent of the taxable sales in the town. The average spending of those who use the airport is between $500 and $1,300 per trip, the firm found — a higher amount than that of other visitors, but not by much. The estimated number of jobs created by the airport and passenger spending was put at between 100 and 230 — important, but with an employee shortage, not as great a problem as it might appear.
Anticipated but stunning nonetheless is how far the airport has shifted from a field for owner-operator hobbyist pilots over the years. Three-quarters of passengers arrive and depart on commercial aircraft, including jets and helicopters. About half of these passengers surveyed said they would no longer visit East Hampton if they could not get here by air; however, the revenue hit to local businesses would be less than the cost of a mid-price house — between $3 million and $7 million.
If the airport were to be closed, quiet, and replaced with parkland, hiking trails, bicycle paths, and greenways, the consultants said, the economic impact would be offset by an improvement in quality of life, and, for properties near the airport, a likely increase in real estate values. The environment would win, too, with East Hampton at least, responsible for fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Some here say the airport must remain open for emergency medical evacuations. While in a major disaster, such as a hurricane, large aircraft might be called in, the usual way patients are flown out for care is in Suffolk Police helicopters, which land in any number of places as close to where help is needed as possible. Just this week, there was a medevac transfer at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, for example, and others also recently at Eddie Ecker Park in Montauk and the so-called 555 property on Montauk Highway in Amagansett.
A 2019 study by the East Hampton Town Planning Department adds another wrinkle: that the airport, largely enclosed to keep deer off of its runways, is a rare example of native grassland. Mowed only twice a year, the open spaces surrounding its pavement are host to at least 56 species of indigenous plants, including several extremely rare types. The federally endangered grasshopper sparrow, which requires expansive grassland for foraging, is found there. One plant at the airport called yellow wild indigo, or horsefly weed, is a crucial habitat for the state threatened frosted elfin butterfly, itself an important food source seasonally for other wildlife. Loss of habitat on which the horsefly weed can thrive has contributed to declines in many other species.
As more and more of the remaining wild places on the East End are turned into lawn, places like the airport take on even more significance. But this also argues for a high level of caution if it is to be put to a different use. Its greatest value may well be in leaving it mostly alone after the jets and helicopters are finally sent away.
Aircraft noise has long been far above acceptable levels, and we know now that closing the airport or returning it to its former owner-operator use would not be the economic disaster some warned. Tuesday’s meeting will be an opportunity for the public to weigh in on what should be done. It is a meeting not to be missed if you care about peace and quiet and fighting back for the place you love.