Aviation Group Sues to Overturn Helicopter Restrictions in East Hampton (New York)

APRIL 22, 2015 (rev Apr. 28)

An aviation industry coalition is suing to block new restrictions on helicopter flights on Long Island’s East End that many residents say will spare them from noise, but business owners say will ruin their livelihoods. Helicopter flights and the din they bring have been in dispute for decades on the East End, often pitting summer visitors against year-round homeowners. Among those caught in the middle are businesspeople who service the aircraft.

The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court (Eastern District of New York) against the Town of East Hampton, which operates the East Hampton Airport and which recently had adopted new regulations on helicopter operations at the airport. The suit seeks to block the regulations on the grounds that they violate Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, and the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy and interstate commerce clauses. “Under federal law, local governments have no authority to regulate or control aircraft in flight, no authority to impose airport noise or access restriction using their police powers, and no authority to enact or enforce airport noise or access restrictions that violate or conflict with federal law and policy,” the complaint says.

The suit also argues the new rules for East Hampton Airport “will cause serious and irreparable harm” to charter operators and other airport users.

The restrictions, approved last week by the East Hampton Town Board, will impose curfews from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on all flights and 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. on aircraft deemed “noisy,” and install a limit of one weekly round trip for each individual aircraft. The town dropped a fourth rule that would have banned helicopters during weekends and holidays after officials from neighboring towns voiced concerns it would reroute traffic to other area airports, said councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez. The town plans to re-evaluate the restrictions at the end of the 2015 summer season, she said.

That means a summer of uncertainty for seasonal businesses like Sound Aircraft Services, said Cindy Herbst, who owns the firm, which is based at East Hampton Airport and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “When you’re a seasonal business and you lose a season, there’s no way to survive the winter months,” she said.

The town had expected aviation operators would bring legal action over the restrictions, according to board members. When drafting the rules, the board retained the law firm of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, which has expertise in airport management. FAA guidelines require rules be reasonable and without unjust discrimination. The town’s rules meet that criteria, said Peter Kirsch, a partner at the firm. “I’m confident that they will stand up in court,” he said.

The rules are “severe and illegal,” said Loren Riegelhaupt, a spokesman for the Friends of East Hampton Airport, an industry group that opposes the regulations and is also among the plaintiffs. “Rather than working together to find a balanced, reasonable approach, as they promised, the town has passed restrictions that violate the law and result in dramatic loss in revenue for the airport and town,” Mr. Riegelhaupt said.

Supporters of the rules said the suit had cast a shadow on what they considered a victory. “I think we are now on a trajectory to solve the problem, but it will take longer,” said David Gruber, who has sought for decades to reduce aircraft noise.

The eight co-plaintiffs on the lawsuit include five corporations located in New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, and Virginia; Liberty Helicopters, Inc., a New York corporation located in Kearny, New Jersey, that provides passenger service from Manhattan to East Hampton ($500 for the 45-minute trip). The other two plaintiffs are Sound Aircraft Services, which provides ground and fueling services at the East Hampton Airport, and the non-profit Friends of the East Hampton Airport, Inc.

Sources: Wall Street Journal on line, April 21, 2015; Sag Harbor Express on line, April 21, 2015

See also:

East Hampton Airport Noise Abatement Regulations

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York