Relations between local officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, at odds for several years over helicopter flight paths, grew even more turbulent after the two town supervisors on the North Fork yesterday accused federal regulators —and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer — of being less than forthright.
Yesterday, Rep. Lee Zeldin, Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter took the senator to task for what they said was his role in the four-year extension of an FAA-approved helicopter route that has East Hampton-bound helicopters flying over North Fork homes. The extension was put in place by the FAA this month without any public comment period and with no notice to local officials, who said yesterday Schumer knew about it well in advance and in fact applied “political pressure” to get the FAA to adopt the four-year extension in that manner.
FAA representatives made that clear at yesterday morning’s meeting in Ronkonkoma, Zeldin and the town supervisors said at a press conference in Riverhead yesterday. Today, the FAA fired back, accusing the officials of misrepresenting what was said at the meeting.
“Comments an FAA employee made yesterday about the North Shore Helicopter Route were misrepresented,” the agency said in a written statement.
“Media have reported the claim that there was a secret deal regarding the North Shore Helicopter Route. There was no secret deal with Senator Schumer or anyone else. Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Zeldin have been unequivocal in their strong support for all over-water helicopter routes on Long Island to augment existing routes,” the statement said. “Both Senator Schumer and Congressman Zeldin have articulated the same concerns to the FAA regarding impacts to their constituents and have been equally forceful in expressing their shared position to extend the helicopter route around Orient Point, Shelter Island, and Plum Island as soon as possible.”
“I wonder if Sen. Schumer wrote that himself,” Russell mused. “Obviously, the FAA has generally been an agency that is there to advance the agenda of the senator to the exclusion of all others. Apparently, they are his mouthpiece, too.”
Walter said the local officials “absolutely did not misrepresent” what was said by FAA officials at yesterday’s meeting. “They were very clear,” he said.
Zeldin issued a statement this afternoon saying he’d had “a very good conversation” with Schumer’s “senior staff” this morning and the senator “supports extending the North Shore route around Orient Point while also lifting the hold to create a mandatory South Shore route.”
The congressman promised to “continue to do everything in my power to assist” Riverhead and Southold towns.
“Failure cannot be an option with so much at stake for North Fork residents who want to see an end to this annual headache,” Zeldin said.
Asked to directly respond to the FAA statement that officials at yesterday’s press conference “misrepresented” what the regulators told them at yesterday morning’s meeting, Zeldin’s communication director said in an email:
“While the FAA evolves their story line, Congressman Zeldin is committed to working with anyone who wants to help push the FAA to implement an acceptable solution. The solution is an all-water route, not the status quo. There is also absolutely no need in 2016 for the FAA to still be searching for data to fix the mess that they created.”
Russell told Southold Town Board members at this morning’s work session that yesterday’s meeting with FAA reps was “eye-opening.”
“In the past, we’ve met with FAA reps and asked questions and got blank stares,” the supervisor said.
He was especially struck by the FAA’s admission, he said, that the “requisite studies” had not been done prior to implementing the North Shore rule on a “temporary basis” for two years in 2012, or before extending it for two years in 2014, or for four years in 2016.
“They say they’re doing [the studies] now,” Russell said. “They said they haven’t mandated a south shore route because they haven’t done the studies and it would be arbitrary and capricious. Well, we know all about arbitrary and capricious here on the North Fork,” he said.
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