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Activists Unhappy Over Helicopter Route Plan

Skeptical that real changes are in the works

When it comes to helicopter noise over the North Shore, both Senator Charles Schumer (D. -NY) and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood claim that help is on the way, but local activists are not pleased with the latest announcement on the subject.

Last week, LaHood announced regulations that would mandate an “over the water” North Shore helicopter route. Such regulations, LaHood’s office said, would be finalized by Memorial Day and implemented this summer.

According to the offices of Senator Schumer, LaHood stated “for the first time” that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “will begin the process of establishing mandatory offshore routes for Long Island’s South Shore and create regulations that protect communities that would be impacted by exit and entry routes on both routes.”

Len Schaier, president of Quiet Skies over North Hempstead and a leading activist on the issue, is unhappy with the decision.

“The FAA still does not have the authority to do what Secretary LaHood has promised,” he claimed in an email to The Roslyn News.

The plan for the over-water routes took place as debate continues on the FAA Reauthorization Bill. In the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, Senator Schumer has introduced SA 71, a bill designed to slow down the implementation of earlier FAA routes, ones that have caused much opposition among North Shore residents. According to Schaier, SA 71 would give the FAA the authority to set up helicopter routes based on noise factors.

Despite the announcement, Schaier is skeptical that residents will see any relief from the noise problem.

“I hope I am wrong and will reserve final judgment until this summer,” he said. “The next kicker will be that our congressional delegation will have done nothing about removing the Categorical Exclusion language from the reauthorization bill. Then we will have the double whammy of the same helicopter noise as in prior years along with increased noise and pollution from the commercial jets and no mechanisms to stop either.”

Here, Schaier is referring to language in competing reauthorization bills that he claims will compromise any bid for flight pattern reform.

“This language will allow the FAA to avoid the environmental evaluations which are in the Clean Air Act and NEPA to protect us,” he claimed in another email to The Roslyn News. “They will also allow flight path profile changes to below 3000 feet. Some of those changes have already been done in violation of the law and are already killing our communities.” According to Schaier, an FAA attorney he had spoken to denied such language existed.

Schaier wasn’t the only one displeased with the announcement. Jeffery Smith, chairman of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC), made the following statement in an email to The Roslyn News.

“At Senator Schumer’s request, in 2007 we agreed to follow the North Shore route. Unfortunately, this restricted flight plan resulted in a highly concentrated and condensed flight pattern for all helicopters over the North Shore. This in turn created a higher frequency of noise for those residents affected and dramatically exacerbated the existing noise concerns.

“[Recent] action makes a fixable problem permanent and gives North Shore residents no options, solutions or relief,” he continued. “In addition, nowhere in the national airspace system does the FAA mandate that a certain type of aircraft fly in the same space. This is a misguided plan on every level. The ERHC continues to recommend reinstating a diversified route structure that will distribute activity more evenly between the North Shore, the center of the Island and the South Shore and alleviate the increase of helicopter traffic over one area. We call on the FAA and Senator Schumer to come to their senses and reverse course before more residents are negatively affected.”

Still, LaHood claimed the new regulation addresses the noise issue.

“To protect the public welfare, the FAA is 100 percent committed to finalizing regulations on the use of the North Shore route by helicopters,” LaHood said in announcing the new helicopter regulations. “The proposed rule would require helicopters to fly over water rather than land and at a high enough altitude to reduce noise when flying over Long Island.  Working with all stakeholders, we intend to have a final rule by Memorial Day weekend, to go into effect before the Fourth of July.

 “We’re also moving forward with rulemaking that will propose over water helicopter routes for the South Shore, and consider additional specificity for the North Shore route to protect communities that would be impacted by entry and exit points,” LaHood added.

Senator Schumer praised LaHood’s actions. His office claimed that it “represents the first time that the Department of Transportation…has weighed in directly on the issue of helicopters on Long Island,” adding that it also represents “a firm commitment to implement the North Shore regulations. It is also the first time the Department of Transportation has committed to implementing a mandatory, over-water, and South Shore route for helicopters.”

“Secretary LaHood’s strong and unequivocal statement should serve as a wake-up call to the helicopter industry,” Senator Schumer said. “Long Island will not continue to be the Wild West for low flying, disruptive and noisy helicopters.”

Local complaints over the new flight patterns, which went into effect last October, mostly concern incoming helicopter landings. The new patterns have been in the works for decades, with its major goal one of reducing the airspace between New York and Philadelphia, one that is hoped also to both reduce delays and increase arrivals. A spokesman at the FAA’s Queens County office told The Roslyn News in January 2011 that a noise level increase would not take place in the North Shore area, including Roslyn, Manhasset and Port Washington. The spokesman said that while designing the airspace changes, the FAA had them analyzed by noise level experts, who affirm that there will be “no new noise” for the North Shore.

At a late January meeting held in East Hills, residents continued to claim helicopter noise was disrupting everyday life. A teacher from Manhasset High School, for instance, she had a class interrupted recently due to excessive helicopter noise, while a longtime East Hills resident said helicopter noise has made his life feel as if he were “living on a runway.”

Also at the meeting, Schaier stressed the importance of influencing Senator Schumer. “Schumer is key,” Schaier said. “If we don’t get him on board, we’re not going anyplace.”

 But what local activists have wanted out of the legislative process has not been realized and as Schaier notes, time will tell if the new regulation works.