Teresa McKaskie of Mattituck, right, addresses three FAA staff members at the agency's forum in Riverhead Nov. 14 2018. Photo: Denise Civiletti

About 150 local residents turned out for a public forum about helicopter traffic hosted by the Federal Aviation Administration last night in Riverhead.

The forum — a “workshop” format where FAA representatives were available to speak with residents about the North Shore Helicopter Route — was one of three such events on Long Island this week. Maps and graphics were positioned around the perimeter of the Riverhead Middle School cafeteria and FAA representatives stood by to answer questions.

But none of the FAA personnel could answer the one question on the minds of the vast majority of residents who attended: When will the North Shore Helicopter Route be changed? No FAA officials in a position of decision-making authority attended the forum. It was, in effect, an orchestrated venting session and the officials in attendance found themselves set upon by a lot of angry residents who expressed indignation about its purpose and its format.

It was hard to find a local resident or official at the event last night who wasn’t angry about not just helicopter noise but the format of the event itself.

“This route was extended to 2020 without a public hearing and without public comment,” said Teresa McKaskie of Mattituck. “It’s clear looking around here tonight that the public has a lot to say and needs to be heard by the FAA in a public hearing. This is not a public hearing as required by the law passed by Congressman Lee Zeldin and signed by the president of the United States,” she said.

The three forums were scheduled by the FAA in response to legislation penned by Rep. Lee Zeldin that was included in the FAA reauthorization act signed into law last month by President Donald Trump. The law requires the FAA to hold a “public hearing” within 30 days of its Oct. 5 enactment date and to open up a 60-day public comment period. The public comment period began on Nov. 2 and continues through Jan. 2. Comments can be submitted online. The agency staffed a table to take comments from the public at last night’s forum.

Earlier this month, Zeldin said the law requires a public hearing and the workshop, which could “complement a public hearing” is not a substitute for it. “[T]here’s no way it can or will be in lieu of a public hearing to receive oral testimony,” Zeldin said. “That’s not an option” under the law.

The congressman’s district manager, Mark Woolley, reiterated that position last night.

“This is not a public hearing and it’s not what the law requires,” Woolley said. “The congressman wants the constituents of the First Congressional District to be heard.” Zeldin was in Washington yesterday and unable to attend the forum, he said.

But FAA public affairs specialist Jim Peters said last night the forums comply with the law’s requirements and the agency has no plans for a public hearing to take oral testimony.

“People can submit comments tonight at the table over there,” Peters said, gesturing to the the table staffed by the agency for that purpose.

“I think it’s a disservice to what they were supposed to be doing,” Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said.

Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent called the format “a complete charade.” If the FAA thought they were going to appease residents with the forum last night, they were mistaken, she said.

“People are leaving more upset than when they came in because they’re not being heard,” Kent said.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said that’s nothing new where the FAA is concerned.

“We’ve been down this road before,” Russell said. “But I’m going to put my faith in my congressman that he can get a different outcome for the people of the North Fork.”

Residents from Calverton to Orient have complained for years that since the route was adopted by the FAA, helicopter traffic in the skies over the area increased exponentially. Prior to its adoption, Hamptons-bound helicopters departing New York City were free to fly a route of their pilots’ own choosing — and most followed a route that took them “up the spine” of the island.

Responding to western Long Island residents’ complaints about helicopter noise — and pressure from U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, local officials say — the FAA adopted the North Shore route, requiring— theoretically, at least — pilots to fly along the northern coast of Long Island, stay off-shore and maintain a minimum altitude of 2,500 feet. The rule allows the pilots to cross from the coastline to East Hampton’s municipal airport, the destination of the the vast majority of helicopters — most along designated “cross-over” points from Riverhead east.

Robert Skinner of Jamesport said the residents of Northville and Jamesport have borne the brunt of helicopter traffic since the transition lines were agreed to by a helicopter trade organization.

“Look at the maps,” he said, referencing maps of Long Island, the North Fork and specific regions of the North Fork, on which the FAA depicted “helicopter radar tracks” during the week of Sunday, Aug. 5 through Saturday, Aug. 11.

Several of the maps depicted helicopter flights for Monday, Aug. 6 only, while others purported to show traffic for the entire week. The maps depicted helicopter routes, as well as altitudes flown, according to notes and map legends.

“You can see its the darkest line on any of these maps,” indicating the greatest number of flights, he said.

The vast majority of the tracks depicted show helicopters flew at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 feet as they crossed over land — well above the 2,500-foot minimum the North Shore Helicopter Route says pilots should adhere to unless weather conditions require deviation.

“Helicopters are always flying right over the tree line where I live,” said one woman, who stood at one of the maps shaking her head in disbelief.

A note on the maps cautioned that “due to normal RADAR limitations, helicopter tracks may not show low altitude flights or the decent [sic] track of landing or departing flights.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.