East Hampton Town could begin transforming its airport into a private facility this winter by temporarily closing it in February as part of a broader and ongoing effort to reduce noise and environmental impacts, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said in a recent speech on the State of the Town.
East Hampton can legally close its Wainscott airport – which offers easy flights between New York City and the East End, but which has given rise to years of complaints about quality of life – following mandates linked to grants from the Federal Aviation Administration expiring in September. But members of the city council have recently said they are in favor of only introducing greater local controls after a series of public workshops and surveys last year.
City officials have met with FAA representatives to discuss the legal framework for the transfer to the airport for private use, Van Scoyoc said on January 4 during his annual speech.
“Our intention is to move to a model that requires prior permission for our airport, which we believe will give the city the greatest flexibility in designing restrictions that balance the needs of the entire community,” the supervisor said. “We expect to begin the transition to winter so that these new restrictions will be in place in the coming summer season.”
A temporary closure was publicly discussed as a mechanism for reclassifying the public airport as private during a meeting of the city board in October with the city’s aviation attorney, William O’Connor of Palo Alto, California-based Cooley LLP. Van Scoyoc said on January 7 that the city would likely close the airport for a while in February and keep it closed for the shortest possible length. The city has not reached an exact number of days yet, he said.
A day earlier during a city council meeting, Van Scoyoc said there is still the possibility of permanently closing the airport in the future.
The FAA will not comment on what restrictions could be adopted at the facility until the agency has more specific information from the city.
There were 32,298 takeoffs and landings at the airport in 2021 an increase of 8% from 29,820 in 2019 according to East Hampton Town. There were 25,404 takeoffs and landings in 2020, when flights fell below the peak of the pandemic. A study commissioned by the city and released in May showed that in 2019, airport visitors generated $ 7 million to $ 20 million in spending in the city, or 1% to 3% of all sales that year.
Airport attorneys and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, a former East Hampton supervisor who struggled with the problem during his 2000-2004 tenure, have said a temporary closure could pose risks, including lawsuits preventing the facility from reopening.
“I am concerned that temporary closure of the airport could result in prolonged or even permanent closure as a result of lawsuits,” Schneiderman wrote in a letter Dec. 10 to Van Scoyoc.
Erin King Sweeney, executive director of the East Hampton Community Alliance Airport Lawyer Group, said the organization is committed to working with the city, but does not support a temporary closure.
“Without a doubt, there will be a rush of lawsuits [if the airport temporarily closed], said King Sweeney, a former councilor in Hempstead Town who now lives in North Carolina. “It’s going to be a series of cases, real estate interests … and it’s just going to bind everyone.”
Schneiderman said in his letter that he would support asking the FAA to allow the city to relocate for private use without temporarily closing the facility.
He also noted that traffic could increase at surrounding airports and heliports, including Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach and Montauk Airport, a result supported by a traffic diversion survey commissioned by the city last year.
The news that the city will not immediately close and reuse the airport property comes as a disappointment to activists who have been trying to close it for years, citing noise, the danger of low-flying planes and fuel emissions.
“To me, it’s an unnecessary luxury to maintain, maintain an airport, even for recreational use, that the planet can no longer afford,” said Barry Raebeck, director of Coalition to Transform East Hampton Airport, which supports the closure of the facility.
Still, he said it was encouraging that the city moved “to deal with at least part of the problem.”
“[When] they actually announce exactly what they want to do and then a means of enforcing what they implement, [then] we want to know if it is really viable or not, “Raebeck said.