Elected officials from across the East End gathered at Iron Pier Beach yesterday to demand the FAA hold a public hearing on the controversial north shore helicopter route. Photo: Peter Blasl

East End elected officials came together yesterday in a show of unity to demand that the FAA hold a local public hearing on the north shore helicopter route.

Rep. Lee Zeldin authored legislation that passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Donald Trump Oct. 5 requiring the FAA to hold a public hearing within 30 days of the statute’s enactment.

The FAA held three informational “workshops” on Long Island in mid-November, including one in Riverhead.

The agency today confirmed what its spokesperson Jim Peters said in an interview at the Nov. 14 session held at Riverhead Middle School: the agency does not intend to hold a formal public hearing.

“The format is consistent with the purpose of the directive, which is to get feedback from the communities affected by the New York North Shore Helicopter Route,” an FAA spokesperson said in an emailed statement today.

Zeldin and a host of other elected officials on the East End strongly disagree.

“These ‘workshops’ failed to comply with the public hearing mandated in my legislative proposal which is now law, and many strongly believe they were seemingly formatted to stifle the true negative impact of this route,” Zeldin said in a statement.

Both Zeldin and Sen. Charles Schumer wrote to FAA officials on Nov. 16 demanding the agency hold a public hearing on the north shore route. Neither the congressman, who wrote to the FAA regional director, nor the senator, who wrote to the agency’s acting administrator, have yet had any response.

At a press conference called yesterday on a blustery Iron Pier Beach in Riverhead, Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the officials had gathered to let the FAA know that “the so-called workshops they had in lieu of the actual public hearings will not be tolerated by us on the East End.”

The session was “clearly” not a public hearing,” Jens-Smith said.

“The workshops they held were more equivalent to a junior high school science fair or a child’s show and tell,” the supervisor said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the town board liaison to the helicopter noise committee, said the format of the workshop was “simply an attempt to stifle the voices” of local residents.

“Let us send a clear message to the FAA today that no one will be able to silence us and this fake hearing will not placate the many residents of the East End that are adversely affected by the constant interruption of helicopters overhead,” Kent said.

“We will be relentless in our quest until the route is changed — or the East Hampton airport is shut down,” said Kent, drawing shouts of “No! No!” from some members of the small crowd gathered in the beach parking lot.

Deputy Supervisor Tim Hubbard said in an interview today that even if the FAA complies with the law and holds a public hearing, “it’s going to fall on deaf ears.” Local elected officials and residents need to be prepared to take other action, Hubbard said.

“The only way you’re going to get their attention is through their purse strings
on the federal level,” he said. Zeldin, Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand should get the appropriate oversight committees involved to hold the FAA accountable for its failure to comply with the statute Zeldin got passed, Hubbard said.

Hubbard said when he met with FAA officials two years ago, they told him “We don’t think you have a problem.” According to Hubbard, they said, “That’s nothing — you should live near LaGuardia or JFK.” Hubbard said “their attitude was ‘we have bigger fish to fry.’”

He acknowledged that bringing a legal action to compel compliance with the statute is an option, “but it’s frustrating to have to spend money on a lawsuit on something that the president of the United States signed into law saying you have to do it.”

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said the whole East End is united on the issue of requiring helicopters to fly an all-water route to reach the South Fork airports.

“When it comes to process and procedure, the law is the law,” Thiele said. “We know the common definition of what a public hearing is — and what happened a couple of weeks ago was not a public hearing.”

Jens-Smith said in addition to a mandatory all-water route, the FAA must do away with the “transition zones” that allow pilots to fly over land and it should also designate the area over the United Riverhead Terminal tanks in Northville” a “no-fly area” for safety reasons. Helicopter pilots use the URT facility “as a navigation point” and head south over land from that point.

Flying over the oil tank field is “potentially life-threatening,” Jens-Smith said, “and the FAA could have heard about that if they had courtesy to hold an actual public hearing.”

Southold Councilman Bob Ghosio, liaison to Southold’s helicopter committee, said helicopter traffic in the summer is “a barrage — they come overhead every two minutes.” It prevents residents from enjoying the peace and quiet of their own homes, he said.

The north shore route was intended to keep helicopters over the Long Island Sound from Manhattan eastward, to quiet the skies of the north shore — in Nassau and western Suffolk, where local residents were complaining about noise. But the rule allows helicopter pilots to “transition” over the North Fork as they make their way to South Fork destinations — mostly the municipal airport in East Hampton.

The north shore route actually made the helicopter noise levels worse for North Fork residents by requiring pilots to stay off the coast until they got out east, with the effect of funneling all NYC-Hamptons helicopter traffic over the North Fork, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said in a past interview.

The rule imposing the north shore route was first adopted 2012, over the objection of helicopter pilots, who sued in federal court to overturn it. A juge upheld the rule. The FAA extended it for two years in 2014 and again in 2016 — that time for four years and without any public comment period. The FAA decided to act on it on an “emergency” basis, surprising and angering elected officials.

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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.