Dan Rattiner's Stories

Dog Rules Mirror Helicopter Issues at East Hampton Airport

My little dog assumed the position in the new dog park on Willow Street in Southampton, and after she was done, I went over and, using a small blue plastic baggie, bent over and did what the law now says I have to do, which was to pick it up. Not a molecule touched my hand. I dropped the baggie in the trashcan nearby.

It occurred to me, as I did this, that in some ways what is happening to helicopter travel today to East Hampton Airport is the same as what happened to having a dog in the Hamptons years ago.

Years ago in the Hamptons, we just walked our dogs and left what they did by the side of the road, or, as the signs said on Main Street CURB YOUR DOG, in the gutter for the town sweeper truck to clean up. There were a few zealots who would clean up what their dogs did. We thought they were a little nuts. This is a rural area, we told them. Dogs run free everywhere, except, of course, in the center of the town. And there, if they were well behaved you could just have them happily trotting along. They had a good time. You had a good time. As for accidentally stepping in something, you’d realize it when you got home. It smelled. You’d have to sit down out on the deck out front and scrape the stuff off and out of the bottom of your shoes. Next time you’d have to be more careful.

It’s fair to say that in the time I’m talking about there weren’t anywhere near as many people, cars or dogs in the Hamptons as there are now. Not so many helicopters either, although there were a few. They’d land at the airport. Or if someone had a big enough lawn, right on the lawn. I remember when Governor Rockefeller came out here in a helicopter to hobnob with Jerry Finkelstein, a mover and shaker who bought the place on Gin Lane previously owned by the Stanley family of Morgan & Stanley fame. The Governor came out with a whole crew of assistants and security people. It was a big deal.

In the late 1980s, Donald Trump inaugurated a scheduled helicopter service between East Hampton Airport and Manhattan. I recall the sleek black choppers with the gold TRUMP logo on the sides parked with their blades on top whirring softly, their pilots and attendants waiting alongside for the customers to come out from the little airport terminal.

That this was before its time might have been clear to Trump if he’d known more about the history of that long-ago terminal. It was a broken-down old shack made from a former World War I army barracks towed out to the Hamptons from the Camp Upton basic training facility in Yaphank after that war ended. Legend has it that when they needed an addition in the late 1940s, a local farmer towed a chicken coop out to attach to the barracks.

Trump did this for two years. You win some, you lose some. He ended the service after the second year.

And so, at a certain point, you just couldn’t keep things as they were. Regarding dogs, there were people who didn’t like them, and there were people who were allergic to them. Dogs got banned from restaurants. They had to be on leashes everywhere, even out at beaches. And then there were the baggie laws. I thought they were absolutely ridiculous. I thought, this will never work. And then last week, walking through the woods with my dog, there I was with a crumpled-up blue baggie in my pocket, waiting for my dog to do her thing off near a bush. Deer and squirrels do their thing in the woods and nobody picks up after them.

Well, this sad tale is intended for readers who can’t believe that the Town of East Hampton could ban helicopters from landing at that airport between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. every day, or if noisy—decibels count—between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m., and not more than one trip a week in summer. It’s just that helicopter traffic has increased from maybe one helicopter landing here every few hours to one helicopter landing here, as the airport logs show, every four minutes from dawn to dusk on summer weekends.

Yes it is true. The airport used to be surrounded by deep woods. And when people built houses, mostly vacation houses, in those woods, they knew going in that there was an airport there and that there would be noise every once in a while. But not this.

It might have been possible, if the helicopter people behaved in a considerate way toward their neighbors—coming in toward the airport at a high level where noise would be minimal down below, and then dropping down for a semi-quiet little cat’s feet landing on a runway near the terminal—for nobody to get so upset about their large numbers.

But then it might have been possible, if the dog owner people behaved in a considerate way toward their neighbors, for people to not have gotten upset if the dog owners made it a point to always clean up after their dogs, or keep them on a tight leash in restaurants or prevent them from getting into fights with other dogs or even biting people. But we didn’t. And now there are laws.

For at least five years, in response to the complaints from people living near the airport about the huge racket the choppers made coming in low, the town tried to get the helicopter people to voluntarily comply with suggested rules. It’s only an extra five minutes to come in high. But, like the dog people, they wouldn’t. We dog people don’t have much clout. So we got used to the rules. The helicopter people however have clout. There is a “let them eat cake” quality about this. They have filed lawsuits.

The whole point the helicopter people make is that they don’t want to spend an extra hour and a half in a cramped car getting out to the Hamptons. That extra hour and a half is too important to them.

Well, I say thank God for the Hampton Jitney, particularly its upscale Hampton Ambassador service. I am on one now, taking that extra hour and a half on the road writing this story sitting in a comfortable captain’s chair in a peaceful, quiet setting not unlike that of a private club. There is an attendant who offered us hot towels at the start of the trip, then later newspapers and magazines, and an assortment of foods and beverages, including red or white wine. Around me are people working on their computers, reading on their Nooks and Kindles, napping, talking quietly or watching the movie on the overhead TV monitor—the movie today is Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve. All this for $45.

Way back in the day of army barracks and chicken coops, the trip out to the Hamptons was not an extra hour and a half, but an extra two hours and a half. And the cars were bumpy and noisy and nobody had seatbelts so they were also pretty scary.

I sure wish I had a helicopter, I thought back then.

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