The North Shore Helicopter Route, which required helicopters flying between New York City and Orient Point to fly one mile off-shore at a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet is set to expire in August and the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet initiated the process required to extend it.
The North Shore route was adopted as a provisional rule in 2012, expiring in August 2014, when the FAA extended the rule for another two years. It will expire Aug. 6.
The FAA has not published a notice of proposed rulemaking for another extension, leaving residents and local officials to wonder what will happen next.
The rule, which in 2012 made what had been a voluntary over-water North Shore route — in place since 2008 — mandatory for helicopter pilots. The rule “permits pilots to deviate from the route and altitude requirements when necessary for safety, weather conditions, or transitioning to or from a destination or point of landing.”
It was aimed at maximizing use of the route and improving upon decreased noise levels “that had been voluntarily achieved.”
But noise complaints from North Fork residents continued unabated, with residents and local officials arguing that the pilots use the discretion allowed by the rule to fly at low altitudes over North Fork homes as they transition south toward East Hampton airport. North Fork residents and officials are pressing for a mandatory route that keeps pilots over water to a point east of Plum Island, then southwest over Gardiners Bay to their South Fork destination. So far, the FAA has not been responsive to that request, according to local officials, leaving them in the dark about what will happen come the Aug. 6 sunset date of the current rule.
Two years ago, the FAA said it found a two-year extension “warranted to maintain the current operating environment and permit the agency to engage in rulemaking to determine future action on this route,” according to its statement published in the Federal Register.
“The FAA expects to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the permanent use of this route in the immediate future,” the agency said in the published statement.
But no Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was ever issued.
Typically, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is published in the Federal Register, commencing a 30 to 60 day comment period. Sometime after the expiration of the comment period, a Final Rule is published, with an effective date that is typically 30 days after publication. It would be impossible for the FAA to follow that process at this point and have a rule in place by the Aug. 6 expiration of the current rule. The agency could, however, determine that “good cause exists that notice and public comment are impracticable and contrary to the public interest” and adopt an extension summarily, which is what it did in 2014. But the final rule extending the expiration date for two years — effective Aug. 6, 2014, when the 2012 rule expired — was published in the Federal Register on June 23, 2014.
A spokesperson for the FAA did not return emails asking whether the rule would be extended or made permanent. The FAA regional press office does not answer reporters’ questions by phone, according to a voice recording on its phone line, which does not accept voicemail messages.
Riverhead Councilman Tim Hubbard, who is in the process of establishing a helicopter task force in Riverhead to coordinate the town’s response to the problem, said he has not heard when the FAA might be acting.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they just extend it another two years. I doubt they will decline to extend it,” Hubbard said Monday. “Then we have nothing. I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin’s spokesperson, Jennifer DiSiena said, “We are pressuring the FAA for an update on this while pursuing a more permanent fix such as the South Shore all-water route.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Schumer declined to answer questions about the status of a North Shore Route extension by the FAA.
“Sen. Schumer has long supported and fought for an all-over-water North Shore helicopter route that would extend the current route past Orient Point and around Plum Island, as well as the establishment of an all-over-water south shore route,” Schumer spokesperson Marisa Kaufman said. “He continues to urge the FAA to expand the current North Shore route to help the thousands of East End residents who are continuously burdened by the constant drone of helicopter noise.”
Teresa McKaskie, a Mattituck resident who has been fighting against helicopter noise for years and is a member of the Southold helicopter noise committee, was taken aback by news that the FAA has not taken any steps to extend the expiring rule.
She challenged Schumer to take action to require helicopters carrying passengers to have flotation devices on board. Lack of floatation devices is the safety reason cited by pilots for not following an over-water route, she said.
“That’s the only way to truly mandate the all-over-water route,” McKaskie said. “Sen. Schumer should be telling the FAA to mandate flotation devices.”
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the expiration of the North Shore route would not necessarily be a bad thing in terms of helicopter noise on the North Fork. Before the mandatory North Shore route, many helicopter pilots flew up and down the center of the island, Russell said. After the North Shore route went into effect, all helicopter traffic was directed along the North Shore and when they got to a point east of Iron Pier in Northville, they were free to cross over anywhere they wanted to.
This placed the brunt of the burden squarely on North Fork residents, Russell said.
The North Shore route is “plagued with loopholes,” she said, “and needs to be fixed.” But if the rule making it mandatory is allowed to sunset without other safeguards in place, such as minimum altitudes, the noise problems will only worsen, she said.
Russell said there’s “a common understanding that Schumer wants it extended another two years.” But the senator “saw it didn’t work so well for the East End, so now the finger-pointing starts,” he said.
“The pilots tell us ‘get rid of the North Shore route and we’ll disburse it around the island’ and then the noise issues on the North Fork will be reduced substantially,” Russell said.
“But then the noise that was abated up west would resume,” he said. Places like Floral Park and Manhasset saw the problem go away with the North Shore Route, according to Russell. That made the senator happy.
For that reason, Russell said, “I do not believe you will see the expiration of the North Shore route any time soon.”
Russell said the town’s position is that any extension of the North Shore route should make mandatory a route that takes the aircraft about five miles east of Plum Island “so they can’t cross over land.”
A spokesperson for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, an association of helicopter owners and pilots, could not be reached for comment.
The council this spring proposed a “summer route” (pictured above) that would specify over-land transition points at three places on the North Fork. The proposed route drew fire from residents and local officials, who reasserted thie objection to all helicopter traffic between New York City and East Hampton being routed across the North Fork.
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