Local, state and federal officials are banding together to ensure the message of their constituents to the Federal Aviation Administration is heard.
Following the passage of a law reauthorizing the FAA, which was co-sponsored by Congressman Lee Zeldin and signed into law by President Trump in October, the FAA was required by law to hold a public hearing on proposed helicopter routes over the East End within 30 days, but the meeting constituents attended in Riverhead two weeks ago was far from what they expected.
The hearing, held November 14, did not allow residents to be heard, or let them tell their stories, nor did the FAA hear concerns about quality-of-life issues, according Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. She joined other public officials in taking the agency to task at a press conference November 28 over helicopter routes.
“The workshops they held were more equivalent to a junior high school science fair or a child’s show and tell,” Jens-Smith said at Riverhead’s Iron Pier Beach Wednesday. “As elected officials we know all too well what a public hearing is supposed to look like, and the session that the FAA held was clearly not a public hearing.”
State Senator Ken LaValle reduced Jens-Smith’s junior high comparison to the elementary school level.
“People deserve to be treated like the citizens they are,” he said, formally addressing the FAA. “Open your ears and listen to what the people are saying. If people were to take pictures of the Long Island Sound today, those waves, that’s the anger that people feel here on the East End of Long Island.”
Officials took the opportunity to tell their constituents’ stories of noise so loud and helicopters so low that picture frames have been shaken off the walls of homes, or families having barbecues not being able to hear on another talk because yet another helicopter flies overhead every 30 seconds to a minute.
The Riverhead supervisor also addressed her concern of helicopters flying over fuel tanks, saying the safety of citizens shouldn’t be compromised for those wealthy enough to save a few minutes by taking a helicopter out to the Hamptons.
“This is a potentially life-threatening situation, and the FAA could have heard about that from the people who live in this area if they had the courtesy and respect to hold an actual public hearing,” Jens-Smith said. “The worst part of it all is that there are clearly answers to these issues. It’s time we’re placed before the profits of the helicopter companies.”
She and other officials called for an all-water route for aircraft, either over the Long Island Sound or the Atlantic Ocean, adding there should also be a no-fly zone over the fuel tanks. Jens-Smith said the North and South Forks will no longer be pitted against each other, creating a united front that Suffolk County legislators Al Krupski and Bridget Fleming, and Deputy County Executive John Kaiman said is of the utmost importance moving forward to make sure changes are made.
The FAA assumes East End residents are accustomed to the background noise, according to Southold Town Councilman Bob Ghosio, who also heads his town’s Helicopter Noise Committee.
“When you live in the city and live near LaGuardia and Kennedy Airport and the heliports, this background noise is a part of your everyday living, but by and large out here on the East End we’re still considered ‘small-town’ and rural, and part of the attraction for people to live here is that it is quiet,” he said. “This isn’t something we’re accustomed to, and quite frankly, it’s a barrage. This is changing the way people are living their lives.”
Zeldin, although not in attendance, said in a statement read by a representative that the “workshop” gave Long Islanders a bad case of déjà vu, asserting it failed to comply with the public hearing mandated in his proposal.
“Many strongly believe the workshop was seemingly formatted to stifle the true negative impact of this route,” he said. “It is imperative that the FAA schedule this public hearing immediately.”
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele is hoping communities coming together on the East End will help alter the status quo.
“We need an all-water route on both the North and South Fork — we need the approval of reasonable restrictions at the airport, whether it’s curfews, restrictions on the number of flights — all of the things that the Town of East Hampton was attempting to do,” he said. “We’re not going to stop until we get the changes we need.”
East Hampton’s efforts to create curfews and otherwise limit the number of noisy aircraft using the airport were shot down by a federal court, which ruled the town had to seek permission of the FAA before imposing restrictions.