Renew Efforts to Rein in Aircraft Noise

Town board ponders curfews, quotas, bans

The East Hampton Town Board renewed the push to regulate takeoffs and landings at East Hampton Airport at its meeting on Tuesday, as an attorney described the potential ways to restrict, or even ban, aircraft deemed noisy, including helicopters.

A 2016 federal appeals court ruling struck down three town laws designed to reduce aircraft noise that had been enacted the previous year. The board is now preparing an analysis, known as a Part 161 study, that airports must perform when proposing local noise or operational restrictions to the Federal Aviation Administration. The study represents a new effort to exert control over the noise that has plagued residents living under the airport’s flight paths.

Bill O’Conner, the attorney assisting the town in its long effort, told the board there were eight options for the study, which are not mutually exclusive and can be layered together.

“Does Part 161 not compel us to have a problem statement that we’re working off of?” Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez asked, referring to a statement the board had made in 2014. “That’s up front in the application,” Mr. O’Conner said, “mostly driven by complaint data we have over the last several years.” 

The existing statement should be fine-tuned for the application, he said. “The F.A.A. is going to require alternatives. We need to look at options and determine what the impacts might be before the actual problem statement is drafted. But we know what type of aircraft is causing the most complaints, when they’re operating, when they cause most complaints.” 

The F.A.A., Mr. O’Conner said, “wants to see that you’ve considered other alternatives that will have a meaningful impact in reducing noise at the airport. There’s no set formula as to the number of alternatives you need to study, but you do need to study some alternatives.” 

One option is a blanket curfew that would apply to all aircraft, be they helicopter, seaplane, or fixed-wing, Mr. 

O’Conner said. “This is designed to have open and closed hours,” he said, such as 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. The curfew could apply only to aircraft deemed noisy, he said, or to a particular time of year. 

A second option would be to simply close the airport during designated hours. The board could enact tighter restrictions on weekends, for example, “when people don’t want to be bothered by aircraft noise early or late,” Mr. O’Conner said. This option, too, could be crafted to apply to particular aircraft types or the season. 

Mr. O’Conner said a third option would prohibit operations during designated hours unless prior approval was obtained from the airport manager. Such a system would not be left entirely to the manager’s discretion; it could designate times for which prior permission is not required, he said. 

Tag administration is another option, Mr. O’Conner told the board. Using limits to a fisherman’s catch of a particular species as an analogy, he said this would be “a system where the town board limits operations to a finite number during a set period of time based on tags.” The board would administer the tags through a process designed to be fair to all airport users, he said. This could take the form of a prohibition on operations during one designated time period, a ban only on noisy aircraft during another, and no restrictions on a third. 

A fifth option is the quota system common in Europe, “where they have much more progressive views on regulating noise,” Mr. O’Conner said. Under this protocol, each operation during designated hours is assigned a value based on measured “effective perceived noise” in decibels, known as EPNdB. Most aircraft, he said, are assigned a rating when certified by the F.A.A. As aircraft take off or land at the airport, their EPNdB value is added until the quota is reached, after which noisy operations would be prohibited for the remainder of the designated time, Mr. O’Conner explained. This option has worked well at large commercial airports in Europe, he said, but might be difficult to apply at a general aviation airport such as East Hampton’s. 

Under another quota-based approach, the airport could assign an allotment per operator for a designated period, with each noisy operation assigned a value, such as its EPNdB. Once the operator had reached its quota for the designated period, the operator would be prohibited from further takeoffs or landings for the duration of the period. 

Should the town board deem it necessary, it also could ban aircraft defined as noisiest, Mr. O’Conner said. Or it could limit such operations to a specified number per hour, banning noisiest aircraft from, for example, noon on Thursday through noon on Monday. Or, he said, it could ban the noisiest aircraft that either originate or terminate within 105 miles of the airport, a move aimed at targeting flights to and from Manhattan, the source of much of the helicopter traffic, which generates the most noise. 

Finally, the town could move to close the airport, which it would be legally permitted to do in 2021, upon the expiration of federal grant assurances, he said. 

H.M.M.H., an environmental and transportation planning consultant, is working to assist the town in the Part 161 study. H.R.&A., another consultancy group, also has been retained to conduct a study of potential economic impacts of the restrictions Mr. O’Conner detailed. 

“What we’re talking about here,” Mr. O’Conner continued, “will be proposed to be part of the town code. It has to be fairly straightforward. Some of these things will not be easy to administer, but that’s okay. In order to have a robust system, it’s going to involve some administrative time and effort to get it right.” The goal, he said, is to have the application completed and ready to submit in the fall. 

The F.A.A. will determine if the application is complete. “I expect they’ll have at least one round of comments, and ask us to take another look at it,” he said. Once the application is published in the Federal Register, a public comment period will open, after which the F.A.A. will determine whether the town is authorized to enact the restrictions, he said. 

“We now have our work cut out for us in refining our approach and reviewing these different options,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said at the presentation’s conclusion.