In 1936, construction began on the trio of runways that comprise the East Hampton Airport. The triple tarmacs overlapped and interlocked at their ends, and pilots looking down from the cockpits of buzzing DC-3s would have seen a tight triangle glistening in black amid the sandy Hamptons grass below.
It took the cooperation of three parties to pave those runways—the East Hampton Business Men’s Club joined up with the East Hampton Town Board to secure funds from the Works Progress Administration, the federal government’s New Deal program that was building America out of the Depression one steel beam and concrete pour at a time. Community, business, and government—the great American trio—connected the summery South Fork to the mainland of America.
Back then The East Hampton Star proudly called the airport “one of the finest things ever undertaken,” declaring that “its importance in the future growth of East Hampton cannot be underestimated” and “the entire township will profit to a great extent from the possession of such an asset.”
Not quite a hundred years later, that same trio is up in arms over the future of the East Hampton Airport.
Up in the Air
On September 29 of this year, a contract between the town of East Hampton and the Federal Aviation Administration stipulating that the airport must remain open (due to funding accepted by the town in 2001) is set to expire. For the first time in 20 years, the town of East Hampton will be able to choose whether or not it wants to have an airport in its midst, igniting a debate that has divided residents—and industries—well beyond its borders.
On one side, vocal homeowners who have complained for years about debilitating noise from the jets and helicopters that ferry visitors and residents to the Hamptons see an opportunity to end what they describe as a siege on their senses and a dangerous assault on the natural environment.
On the other, advocates of the airport insist that those visitors—both tourists and well-heeled homeowners alike—are a vital asset to the economic health of the community, and that quick access to the air is a crucial lifeline to the physical safety of everybody on the southern fork.
To listen to the anti-airporters, living in the Hamptons is a harrowing experience. “Just the other night a large helicopter flew low over my house,” said one resident of Wainscott, which sits between Bridgehampton and East Hampton. This was during a virtual Town Board meeting on May 11 to discuss the airport. “It’s not just loud. It literally shakes the walls of my house. The pictures move like I’m haunted by a poltergeist.”
The resident was not alone—over the course of the nearly three-hour board discussion about the airport, a deluge of others waited on hold to take their shot at lambasting the airport. By the meeting’s end, only a single caller had phoned in to speak in favor of it.
“It’s not just loud. It literally shakes the walls of my house. The pictures move like I’m haunted by a poltergeist.”
That caller was Alex Gertsen, the director of airports and ground infrastructure for the National Business Aviation Association (N.B.A.A.), whose Windsor-knotted comments from Washington, D.C., about the “inarguable” community asset that the airport represented rang in scripted contrast to the community callers.
According to the anti-airporters, therein lies the divide—the Greater East Hampton community plugging their ears all summer long versus the big-spending, big-lobbying businesses and billionaires who want merely to keep their airport open so they can fly their dogs, daughters, and au pairs out East on private jets and helicopters, sonic sanity and scorched earth of the Hamptons be damned.
“Somebody who’s flying in in a huge jet, they are so self-important. They look down their nose at the East Hampton Town,” says Barry Raebeck, one of the founding members of Say No to KHTO. (“KHTO” is the East Hampton Airport’s code.) “They just think, We’re so rich and powerful. We can do whatever we want. We’ll hire some lawyers and we’ll just sort this out later.”
The pro-airporters, such as Erin King Sweeney, the executive director of the East Hampton Community Alliance (E.H.C.A.), insist that “it’s local pilots, local business people” who benefit. She describes the organization’s members and fellow pro-airporters as a cross section of the East Hampton community.
“We’ve had a woman at a local muffin shop,” King Sweeney says. “This is not just a bunch of wealthy people flying in on helicopters, as important as they are because they create jobs. But this is about the broad, diverse community that represents East Hampton and beyond.”
King Sweeney cited a report from the Long Island newspaper Newsday, showing that of the 47,000 airport-related noise complaints filed in 2019, 44 percent originated from 10 individual households—1,811 coming from a single home. “I don’t think it’s to anyone’s benefit to have policy for an entire town driven by 10 households.”
Both sides have been stockpiling statistical munitions for the fight to come. Using funds that King Sweeney describes as coming from “local pilots, business people, and community members,” the E.H.C.A. hired the Boston-based economic research group E.B.P. U.S. to examine the economic impact that the airport has had so far on the town of East Hampton. “We asked him to take the most conservative assessment so that we could fully defend his report,” she says.
As the E.H.C.A. expected, the report bolstered their argument, showing that the airport brings about 872 jobs and $77.5 million to East Hampton and Southampton annually. “[The] report has been in the public now for close to three months, and we have not received any viable criticism.”
“Viable” being the key word here, not to be confused with “virulent,” which is an accurate description for the criticism that has ensued. “They have paid lobbyists who write articles and who keep promoting the myths, especially the economic-engine myth,” Mr. Raebeck says. “‘We don’t care about the environment and we don’t care about the people who are bothered by the noise. And we don’t care about the fact that their lives are being ruined by this fricking airport.’ That’s the real counter-argument. ‘We don’t give a damn.’”
(King Sweeney responds to these allegations by saying, “We’re not lobbyists. We do not lobby. And we are not registered lobbyists. We are not lobbying any Town Board member. We’re not asking for them to take any action. We are simply a group that is trying to inform the public.”)
Mr. Gertsen, of the N.B.A.A., points out that “the coalition that is the proponent of the airport has worked with a very credible subject-matter expert,” E.B.P. U.S., to develop the report. He continues: “What expert did Say No to KHTO enlist to issue that opinion?”
Say No to KHTO and its supporters didn’t enlist one, and crutched on noise-complaint statistics and flight-vector maps to make their case on paper. That is until May 11, when the East Hampton Town Board revealed their own economic-impact study that greatly countered the findings of the E.H.C.A.’s study and diminished the value of the airport to the local economy. The Town Board’s study, conducted by the New York–based research group HR&A, found that the airport brings $13 to $26 million to the community annually (down from the E.H.C.A.’s purported $77.5 million), and between 100 and 230 jobs (down from 872).
“The town believes that the majority of the people will continue to come out to the Hamptons, should the airport close,” Mr. Gertsen says. “We believe from talking to a lot of the people who use the airport that they’re going to choose to go somewhere else.”
Patricia Currie, a co-founder of Say No to KHTO, feels otherwise. “They have no idea of the measure of torment that those statistics represent,” she says. “They’re either not aware or they don’t give a damn about the impact of their journeys, on the environment, and on the people below. It’s all about money.”
The Climate Factor
As the economic spat rages, the environmental firefight is just beginning to simmer. In 2019, a 47-acre section of the East Hampton Airport was added to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Registry of Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites (known as Superfund sites).
This pollution can be traced directly to chemicals used during firefighting drills carried out at the airport, but Currie feels that it takes only common sense to connect the dots to flight activity too. “On approach and departure we’re getting blasted with emissions, because those are the two most intense phases of flight, when they take off and when they land,” she says. “It’s like a major pollution center, right at the edge of what was once the quaint little village of East Hampton.”
The E.H.C.A. and the Town Board are each commissioning environmental-impact studies.
“We believe the airport is not nearly as harmful to the environment as the anti-airport activists would have you believe,” King Sweeney says. What’s more, the pro-airport coalition feels, any environmental impacts that are revealed will soon be negated by electric technology that is just over the horizon. “We’re on the brink of a renaissance in aviation,” Mr. Gertsen says of the electric aircraft that are in development currently. “This will negate all those arguments. And it’s just a few years away.” (A representative from Blade, the private-charter company often fingered as a noise culprit in this debate, says they plan to have electric aircraft servicing the East Hampton Airport by 2024.)
Come late September, it will be up to the East Hampton Town Board to decide the fate of the airport. Whether it stays and the jets and helicopters continue to ferry New York City’s V.I.P.’s to their multi-million-dollar estates, or whether its 610 acres are developed into parkland, affordable housing, or even a solar farm (as has been recommended by some anti-airporters), one thing is for certain: the harmonious trinity of the East Hampton community that once paved a triangle of tarmac across the spartina grass will be royally pissed at one another.
Mr. Raebeck puts the debate in the best perspective one could: “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh, this is the haves versus the have-nots.’ No, this is the have-everythings versus the have-a-lots.”
Alex Oliveira is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL