Montauk Fears Possible East Hampton Airport Closure

Montauk Lighthouse Helicopter
The 'copters are coming! Photo: Joerg Hackemann, J.R. Bale, Wang Tom/123RF

The Town of East Hampton has hired a law firm that had worked on the project that resulted in the Santa Monica Airport in California announcing its closure. That airport property is to become a park.

Just that simple announcement has resulted in a panic attack out in Montauk, because if East Hampton Airport were to close, all the helicopter traffic that comes into East Hampton would now be coming into Montauk. East Hampton Town has even sent out feelers to see if they could buy the Montauk Airport property, which is, at present, privately owned.

Just the anticipation of such an occurrence has flown the people of Montauk into a dreadful tailspin. (And an unavoidable metaphor.) Some have already set up groups to fight the problem, including one called Montauk United. Elections are coming up this fall. Montauk United intends to determine where each of the candidates running for office stands on the East Hampton Airport situation, and to make it public.

In recent conversations, each of the Town Board members has said, in effect, “Not me, no, I am opposed to closing East Hampton Airport.” So apparently there is nobody on the board in favor of closure. Indeed, it seems to me to have come about merely as a strategy or threat, as the matter of East Hampton Airport is going to the United States Supreme Court. The Town owns it. Could the Court confirm that the Town has the right to control the Town laws on that property? That’s the issue the court will decide.

More specifically, most at issue is the terrible clatter that helicopters make when they come in and out. The FAA ignores requests to allow noise restrictions. The Town says you can’t do that on our property.

Santa Monica’s situation is different. For one thing, it is five miles from LAX, so closing it does not change a way of life. For another, most of its traffic is not helicopters but big commercial jets. They are also noisy, but they don’t come every five minutes like choppers.

In 1987, Santa Monica passed noise restrictions and hours of operation restrictions so residents could get a good night’s sleep.

Three years later, FAA lawyers created a contract with all airport owners in the U.S. that said, among other things, that no noise restrictions could be put in place without FAA approval. After a fight, they had to agree that the Santa Monica restrictions pre-dated that contract. Other than that, the FAA, from that day to this, has never approved a meaningful noise restriction at any airport in the U.S.

Two years ago, the FAA announced that the 1987 noise restriction at Santa Monica was only good for 30 years and they would not be renewing it. So noise would return to Santa Monica. Lawsuits flew. In the end, the FAA and Santa Monica agreed that the noise restrictions could remain in effect until the people of Santa Monica took a vote to answer a question. Would they want the airport to remain, but under FAA law? Or would they want the airport to be independent and under the operating laws of Santa Monica. The people voted by a great majority to have Santa Monica do what it wanted with it. And Santa Monica said they’d tear up the airport and make it into a park. So that’s what, as airline contracts expire, is going to slowly happen before June of 2018.

It is unlikely that the FAA, having lost that battle, will agree to such a referendum in East Hampton. Some new strategy might be employed. It seems to me that the council members were hoping that just the threat of a closure would bring the FAA to the table. If it is revealed that it is just an empty threat, it won’t work, will it?

The real issue, of course, is the helicopters. Who can bear to hear them chattering all day? Newer helicopters exist that make less noise. The FAA is mandated by the U.S. Congress to require helicopter owners to purchase new helicopters that are less noisy. The FAA has ignored this order. Too bad for those who live near airports.

Will the Supreme Court agree? Oppose it? They might even refuse to take the case. If they do that, an appeals court decision stating that the FAA can do what it wants will stand. We shall know by the end of July whether the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case.

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