Residents living under the vast network of jet flight paths near Westchester County Airport expressed their growing frustrations, including complaints and accusations, at a public forum held Sept. 6 at Chappaqua Performing Arts. Center.
In-person county meetings began last May as County Executive George Latimer sought public input for an updated airport master plan.
Deafening noise from planes, air pollution and water contamination topped the list of complaints from speakers who were among the nearly 200 people who attended last week’s forum. Many of those who attended were residents of Chappaqua residents or nearby communities.
At one point, Mount Pleasant resident Jordana Silverstein held her iPad up to the microphone and said, “This is what a low-flying plane looks like all day, all night.” Those in the auditorium heard a thunderous 10-second audio clip of planes flying directly above Silverstein’s home. She said the noise has become a safety issue.
“I didn’t hear my child scream when he fell and got hurt because a plane was flying so low over my house,” Silverstein said.
While some speakers pointed out that the airport supports a viable local economy by attracting businesses to the area, New Castle resident Warren Gottlieb criticized Latimer for including airport revenue in the county budget.
“The county must resist the temptation to use Westchester County Airport as a vehicle for economic expansion in the county,” Gottlieb said. “This is not the place to fill budget gaps.”
The unusually agitated Latimer fired back at the accusation.
“Let me be clear,” he said emphatically. “There is no profit at the airport plugging a county budget hole. No airport revenue is used to balance the county budget, and if you say that as a fact, you are telling a lie. Do not misrepresent what this administration has done.
A heated exchange between Latimer and Gottlieb ensued, which later prompted Robert Fleisher, a member of the county’s airport advisory board and New Castle resident, to explain that the county’s budget clog was an unfortunate remnant left over from Latimer’s predecessor, Rob Astorino, who continued his efforts to privatize the airport. “The airport is an economic driver…and there is hope that we can find better economic drivers than the airport, which has a lot of negative externalities,” Fleisher said.
Latimer said the master plan will address economic impacts on businesses and large corporations moving into the county, including jobs and taxes.
Many have blamed business and private jets for ignoring the voluntary midnight to 6 a.m. curfew, urging the county to enforce time limits on flights. Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) advised Latimer that a tougher curfew should be part of the master plan.
“I’ve heard from residents and constituents that the curfew is just not being observed,” he said.
Briarcliff Manor resident Nancy Rogers Golodetz complained about the small planes.
“I counted 15 helicopters a day flying low over my house,” Golodetz said.
Latimer responded that the county has taken legal action against operators who use helicopter service to operate at the airport.
“We believe this is not allowed,” he said, adding “the county is also involved in a lawsuit to deny a commercial airline request for an additional hangar.”
Another issue raised was stormwater runoff contaminated with glycol-based aircraft de-icing fluid and PFAS, chemicals contained in fire-fighting foams used at the airport decades ago, jeopardizing drinking water supply. The airport borders the Kensico Reservoir, which provides drinking water to New York City and parts of Westchester, and is adjacent to the Lake Rye watershed.
Henry Skelsey of Mount Pleasant said PFAS contamination was already in his neighborhood. In 2017, PFAS was found in groundwater near the airport at concentrations 14 times higher than the limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he said. PFAS has been linked to cancer, kidney disease and birth defects.
“Wells in my neighborhood have already tested positive for PFAS,” Skelsey said. “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the county board of health would not say (the contamination) originated from the airport which is three miles away; however, there is no other credible source. We’ve all had to invest in multi-thousand dollar filtration systems just to make our drinking water safe for our children.
Latimer said the county is spending millions of dollars to keep PFAS out of the watershed.
“It hasn’t entered the watershed yet,” Latimer said. “We do everything we can under the umbrella of DEC.”
He said County Attorney John Nonna, who attended the meeting, has worked with the DEC on the PFAS issue for four years.
New Castle Supervisor Lisa Katz reminded Latimer that in 2018 he held three separate community meetings in the town and heard residents complaining vehemently about the airport’s negative environmental impacts.
“The message hasn’t changed,” Katz said. “On behalf of the nearly 18,000 residents I represent, we must reduce environmental impact and use the airport as a hub for renewable energy generation, find ways to drastically reduce emissions and eliminate the use of leaded fuel in airport operations We need to update the master plan.
Latimer said a first draft of the master plan could likely be written by the end of October and, after some adjustments, the county could release it in November. “The bottom line is that the master plan will be officially done when we all think it’s done, and then there will be public comment on it,” Latimer said.
Many speakers expressed frustration with the process and their inability to go directly to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which ultimately approves the updated airport master plan.
“What we’re looking to do with our master plan is find out what the best practices are (at airports) in other parts of the country,” Latimer said. “These public forums are about making sure we know exactly what people’s concerns are and presenting the best case possible to the FAA.”
It was the fifth public forum since May to collect public input, including a virtual session in July. Another meeting will be held this Tuesday, September 13 at 7 p.m. at Harvest Time Church, located at 1338 King St. in Greenwich, Connecticut.
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