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Fed up with helicopter noise, residents, elected officials demand action from FAA, state senators

Fed up after another summer they say was even worse than last year, residents and elected officials alike are demanding the Federal Aviation Administration and United States senators hear their cries for relief from helicopter noise.

A second community forum was hosted by Southold Town last night at the Peconic recreation center; the event was attended by elected officials including New York State Senator Ken LaValle, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.

Kicking off the event, Southold Town Councilman Bob Ghosio, liaison to the Southold helicopter noise steering committee, said the group has been working hard for eight months, and while there is still work to be done, progress has been made.

Kevin Dowling, legislative aide for Congressman Lee Zeldin, said helicopter noise was a critical issue. “This is a huge priority for us,” he said.

Dowling pointed out that Zeldin authored an amendment to ensure that the FAA would not use any new funding to act against East Hampton Town in regard to its efforts to regulate helicopter noise.

Elected officials and residents at the event applauded Zeldin’s efforts.

Mattituck resident Teresa McCaskie, who’s taken the lead on local efforts to get officials to sit up and take action, said the problem is not unique to Southold. “We all have to work together to find resolution,” she said.

Kathleen Cunningham of the Quiet Skies coalition agreed. She thanked residents for traveling to East Hampton last August for a public hearing and to show support for the board’s adoption of legislation to deliver noise abatement.

Giving the history of the East Hampton town board’s efforts, Cunningham said the board has worked hard to impose meaningful restrictions. But, she said, their efforts have been challenged by aviation organizations, “heavy hitters and big players that don’t want to see this airport regulate itself. They don’t want to see us have home rule, to run an airport that’s safe and accessible but not littering the community with noise and emissions.”

East Hampton recently appealed a Supreme Court injunction against legislation that would restrict noisy aircraft operations at the town’s airport to one trip a week.

Back in April, the East Hampton town board adopted three local laws meant to impose use restrictions on airport operations.

Opponents slapped the town with a lawsuit in federal court. Federal District Court Judge Joanna Seybert granted the plaintiffs’ application for an injunction on the restriction that would limit trips of “noisy aircraft” to once-per-week from May through September, but refused to enjoin two rules imposing year-round curfews: one, a mandatory nighttime curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the other, an extended curfew on noisy aircraft, from 8 p.m. until 9 a.m.

In late June, Seybert placed an injunction on the one restriction that would restrict trips to once a week. The other two laws have been in effect and enforced since July 2.

The three use restrictions were intended to work together to curb aircraft noise and provide relief to residents, East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said last night.

A much-debated fourth restriction, which would have banned all helicopter traffic on weekends, from Thursday to Monday during the height of the summer season, was ultimately not included in the vote.

All at the forum applauded the new East Hampton town board, which has heard the cries of its East End neighbors: On December 31, the town of East Hampton let expire four FAA grant assurances, taking back the reins in terms of overseeing its airport. For years, East Hampton had its hands tied and could not regulate hours of operation and number of flights after accepting funding from the FAA.

But despite “slow progress,”, Cunningham said without the regulation limiting trips to once a week, the “curfews are basically useless. In fact, it’s made traffic worse because it compresses, into a shorter period of time, the same traffic as before. If you feel like it’s worse — it is worse,” she said.

Cunningham said the Quiet Skies Coalition is still working to encourage the East Hampton town board to resurrect its pitch for a weekend ban on helicopters.

Still, Cunningham said, there has been good news: East Hampton hired “top-notch litigator” Kathleen Sullivan; she also said there has been a little bit of positive news from the FAA, which “has modified its position on fighting the preliminary injunction.”

Cunningham said community support has meant everything. She and McCaskie strongly urged residents to continue calling and making complaints, to build a stronger case. “We have to broaden the footprint of the number of complainants we have,” Cunningham said.

2015_0813_Helicopter1Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter lashed out at what he said was a lack of action on the part of United States Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer.

“This is crazy. I’m really angry at the people in charge,” Walter said. “I’m aggravated, and here’s why: You know the difference between a supervisor and a senator? We get stuff done. I have no idea what Kirsten Gillibrand looks like. I know what Chuck Schumer looks like because you can’t get between him and a microphone, but he’s never been here.”

Pacing the front of the room, Walter continued. “I don’t give a damn whether helicopters have to fly around Plum Island. The reality is, Schumer and Gillibrand have to stop this.”

Walter said there is no reason why helicopters could not use the southern route, as well as the northern route east around Plum Island. “There shouldn’t be a person in the five East End towns that votes for Schumer or Gillibrand until they solve this very simple problem. It’s not rocket science.”

He also gave a nod to Zeldin’s efforts. “I’m not blowing smoke up Lee Zeldin’s skirt but he did more in six months than anyone has done on this issue in a decade. We have a congressman trying to fix the problem but if the two senators do not fix this, he’s just pissing in the wind.”

Good neighbors

Russell thanked the East Hampton town board, an ally after years of pleas falling upon deaf ears. “The tone and tenor have changed. The supervisor and board have shown great courage and leadership. They have shown us they want to be good neighbors.”

Cantwell explained the legislation adopted and said together, the three restrictions would have reduced the number of landings at the East Hampton airport from 4,000 to 1,000 per year, or 75 percent. “This was very meaningful, well-thought-out, documented and supported legislation,” Cantwell said, adding the public hearings on the issue were some of the most well-attended ever in town.

“And, of course, we were sued. Not unexpectedly,” he said.

Important to note, Cantwell said, was that the judge ruled in East Hampton’s favor on its right to restrict landings and have some local control over the airport.

And that’s why, Cantwell said, the board refused to take FAA funding. “We really do believe local control of the airport is more important than taking federal dollars.” The crowd applauded.

Cantwell said the board believes they have a “very good chance of prevailing” but no matter what, they remain dedicated to finding a way to exert local control.

The supervisor also thanked Zeldin and his staff “for helping us get a handle on this issue once and for all.”

LaValle said he and other officials wrote a letter to Schumer a year ago recommending the southern route. “I believe we need to target Senator Schumer. I believe he can help us solve this problem.”

He urged residents to wage a letter writing campaign to Schumer.

2015_0813_Helicopter3Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who is challenging Zeldin for his seat, said she believes the northern route, around Plum Island, as well as mandating the southern route, is critical.

But she believes the FAA must be held accountable.

The FAA, she said, can require altitude restrictions and curfews. “The FAA needs to be held accountable and needs to be brought to the table. It requires an act of Congress.”

A bill must be put forth to direct the FAA, “if the FAA is not willing to come to the table,” she said.

Ghosio said the FAA had been invited to the forum; no one attended. “I think the silence says a lot,” he said.

Bob Mellafonte, chair of the Sag Harbor Citizens Advisory Committee and an active advocate for helicopter noise abatement, said Gillibrand and Schumer need to take action. “This needs to change and now,” he said.

Riverhead’s Janice LoRusso said sea planes are also an issue. “We can’t seem to get through to the FAA,” she said.

Krupski agreed, and said not only had the FAA representatives seemed “disinterested at the last forum”, but when he organized a meeting with the town supervisors and FAA later, “it was the same thing — total indifference.”

“We just have to scream louder, I guess,” LoRusso said.

One resident suggested a social media petition, stating that voters would withdraw their support from Gillibrand and Schumer unless they did something to help.

Throne-Holst also pointed out that Southampton also has Gabreski Airport and a Southampton Village helipad.

Data indicates that Montauk, which also has a helipad, had 350 landings last year, East Hampton had 4,200, Southampton Village, 1,000, and Gabreski, 1,000, Cantwell said, adding that new, sophisticated technology has been implemented at East Hampton airport to track takeoffs and landings. He said while many helicopters flying over the North Fork are headed to East Hampton, some are also flying to Westhampton, Southampton, or Montauk.

One Shelter Island resident suggested an airport would be best sited at the tip of Montauk, just as in Cape Cod, in a place that is not landlocked and populated with residences.

He added that in past years, helicopters flew over Georgica Pond in East Hampton, an area with wealthy residents, and Schumer, reponding to complaints, diverted the flights. “We are the collateral damage,” he said. “Asking Senator Schumer for help is a fantasy.”

Deborah Tinnirello, Gillibrand’s regional director, said she was at the meeting Krupsk convened and the “FAA looked us in the eye, and that’s about it.” She said Gillibrand understands this is an issue that affects residents every day; she said she would pass on public comments to the senator.

David Gruber, chair of East Hampton’s airport noise subcommittee, said he’s been working on the issue for 17 years. “We need the Senate or nothing can happen.”

He said that Assemblyman Fred Thiele had introduced legislation that would allow for a bonding period, critical to East Hampton supporting itself without FAA funding in the future; also,another piece of legislation would allow for a permissive referendum should any future East Hampton board try to accept funding from the FAA.

“It’s unending”

Realtor Marie Beninati, who lives on Cedar Beach in Southold, said on a recent Monday, her day off, she heard 17 flight overhead in 133 minutes, one every eight minutes. “It’s unending.”

There’s a need, she said, for hard facts; Beninati suggested a monitoring system to record data, a system she said would be “far more effective and precise,” rather than “hit or miss”.

Cheryl Gold of East Hampton said the entire East End needed to work together. “There’s a real tendency to make this a NIMBY issue and I’d caution everyone not to do it.”

Paula Flaherty of Mattituck suggested hiring a bus this fall and heading to DC, to let the voices of the community be heard.

“I don’t want to ride a bus,” said Margaret Skabry of Peconic. “I want to stay home and enjoy the peace and quiet. We elected you because we can’t do it. You’ve got to get the job done. It’s nonsense. I’m fed up.”

Ghosio thanked everyone for attending and said the work will continue.