An attorney counsels East Hampton: know when to get out of the courthouse

May 1, 2024 | news

Long Island Business News – 04/26/2024

There is one aerial dogfight that has continued to circle the courthouse for nine years and yet the results are the same virtually every time; the East Hampton Town Board experiences defeat.

It begs the question. Is there an alternative to what has become years of failed litigation in the town’s effort to shut down the East Hampton Airport?

Most recently, The New York State Appellate Division, Second Department has ruled that a decision by the New York State Supreme Court was correct and that the town couldn’t arbitrarily restrict the airport. The ruling underscored the harsh reality that the town board would be violating state and federal laws were they to do so. East Hampton Town officials responded to this latest veto by pledging to take this issue to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Legal observers are skeptical of their maneuver because that court is quite selective over which cases it will review and usually those they do hear are because of split judicial decisions by lower courts that debate points of law. That hasn’t happened here, so East Hampton may just be playing for yet more time trying to figure out a different pathway.

Interestingly, their recent environmental review of airport options asked what would happen if they restricted flights at East Hampton. An obvious result would be that flights are diverted to Montauk and other nearby airports. That brought out incredulous Montauk residents to a public hearing who questioned the logic of sending aircraft to an airport with little more than a two-way road for access, fewer support facilities, a modest runway and proximity to far more homes than East Hampton.

That alternative pursuit revealed a town board groping for a way out of legal morass that was first induced by pursuing a popular political position rather than thoughtful public policy. To be clear, the East Hampton Airport is not beloved by many of residents and so closing the airport became a campaign rallying cry almost a decade ago. The problem for politicians is that it ran into the law, and as quoted in a popular country western song, the law won.

There is a sidebar debate over the millions of dollars the town board has spent on outside consultants to argue their case in various courts. The town says it isn’t harming the taxpayers because they are using revenue derived from their own municipal airport. They might maintain it’s the equivalent of using someone’s bank account to condemn and bulldoze that person’s home. It’s an artful defense, but any dollars generated by a public airport ultimately belongs–to the public. So regardless of how the funds are allocated, it’s still the taxpayers’ money. One of the attorneys who argued on behalf of the aviation community before the Appellate Division, James M. Catterson of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP stated: “The town is hemorrhaging money because the town board refuses to discuss appropriate compromise alternatives outside of the courthouse. One would hope this new (East Hampton Town) administration would seize the opportunity to start with a `clean slate’ and chart a new course that addresses all parties’ concerns.

“I am confident that the aviation community hopes this latest court decision opens the door to the type of discussion that will lead to a prompt resolution of this long-running legal dispute,” Catterson said in a statement. The olive branch proffered by the consistent winner of this marathon aviation dog fight is in fact an offer that needs to be welcomed by a town board that continues to rack up eye-watering legal bills and judicial dead ends without any resolution in sight. If the aviation community is willing to adopt flight restrictions, and the courts have slammed the door on shutting down the airport, it is time for the Town of East Hampton to proclaim a political victory that protects their egos, their taxpayers and the future of the airport. Get on with grounding this
aviation dog fight once and for all, and get to an out-of-court settlement.

Joshua M. Liebman is a partner with Rosenberg Calica & Birney LLP in Garden City