Could Airport Counsel Be Cause For Concern?

East Hampton Airport
East Hampton Airport

The decision to open, close or find another approach for the East Hampton airport will have long-term consequences for all of the East End. After an expensive legal battle in 2015-16 that ended with a loss in court, we need to ensure solid footing before we spend more taxpayer dollars on lawyers just to have both sides burned by the results.

With the gravitas of this decision, the reliance on the Town’s selected legal counsel does not inspire any confidence. During the October 19th town board work session, the legal counsel offered “I don’t know” as answers to these basic questions:

  • How long does the airport have to close to achieve “local control”?
  • Why is Montauk allowed to operate with certain restrictions?
  • Does ANCA apply? If it doesn’t, when does it stop applying?
  • Can emergency operations continue during the proposed closure?
  • Could we ban SVFR (even though a federal court already has expressed doubt)?

The legal counsel’s track record on similar issues with airport restrictions is peppered with cases that raise even more questions. Most alarming is its involvement in a messy dispute at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.

The public record shows that the law firm represented the city of Newport Beach in support of efforts to implement restrictions at the airport. However, the law firm then turned around and decided to challenge access restrictions at the same airport by representing an operator (JetSuiteX) with diametrically opposed interests. The dispute implicates the same statutes at hand here in East Hampton (such as the Airport Noise and Capacity Act).

It gets even messier – the law firm then sought to withdraw from representing the operator, somehow asserting that it doesn’t have a conflict of interest, but could not continue. The city of Newport Beach was also left with the short end of the stick. The law firm had abruptly dropped it as a client, conveniently before the law firm filed litigation for the operator and after it had already received confidential information from the city.

The operator ended up requesting that the court investigate the situation – including whether Newport Beach might be trying to undercut its interests through improper means – and in any case not simply allow the law firm to walk away. For its part, the city has asserted that there was an actual conflict of interest. All of this is documented in filings in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (docket no. 8:20-CV-2344-JLS).

This entire ordeal raises serious questions about whether we can count on the same firm’s legal advice and its answers to the questions that we’re still waiting for here. It would seem wise for the Town Board to contact the parties in that proceeding (including elected leaders in the City of Newport Beach) and carefully monitor developments before moving forward.

Is this the legal expertise that we want guiding our Town leaders as they chart the critical future of the East Hampton Airport? 

As our community knows all too well, the debate regarding the airport will affect the everyday lives of our neighbors and friends. The conversation about the future of the East Hampton Airport needs to be guided by professionals that understand the ramifications and can provide reliable advice.

Unlike past attempts to implement restrictions at the airport, this time the Town needs to chart a path avoiding another legal dispute and it can only do so if grounded in sound advice from trusted advisors.

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