Hochul Vetoes Bill Letting New Yorkers Sue For Helicopter Noise
2:44 PM EST on December 16, 2022
New Yorkers will not be able to sue helicopter companies over excessive noise — and the state won't ban non-essential trips from the W. 30th Street heliport — thanks to Gov. Hochul's veto of a popular bill that comes as complaints about the airborne racket have skyrocketed in the city in recent years.
The legislation by West Side lawmakers State Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried would have allowed New Yorkers to bring legal action against helicopter companies for unreasonable and sustained noise, with fines ranging between $1,000-$10,000 per day — and the bill would also have banned non-essential trips to or from the heliport.
But in her veto message on Thursday, the governor argued that the proposed law would have gone against the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of the city's airspace, and the bill, which easily passed both houses in June, didn't specifically follow the required process under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, which strictly regulates how airports can make changes to noise rules and flight restrictions.
"Certain elements of this legislation run counter to the federal scheme regulating New York's airports and airspace," Hochul wrote on Dec. 15. "Therefore, I am constrained to veto this bill."
The governor referenced a 2016 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that struck down attempts by the Town of East Hampton on Long Island to restrict traffic at its airport.
But the pols behind the bill, as well as advocates trying to rein in the choppers, slammed the state's chief executive, who has herself come under fire for her frequent taxpayer-funded flights across the Empire State.
Hoylman told Streetsblog that he strongly disagreed with Hochul's argument to protect business at the W. 30th Street facility, which is technically known as the VIP Heliport and juts out from the Hudson River Greenway, the nation's busiest bike lane, and is one of three heliports in the city.
"Even if one took the notion that it would be challenged, as many statutes in Albany are, it was worth pursuing given the startling increase in noise complaints precipitated by the rising number of chopper flights," the pol said.
Meanwhile, city government has several times been able to restrict non-essential trips not through laws, but via agreements with private helicopter operators.
Helicopter noise complaints have soared nearly 25-fold over the last six years from 84 per month in 2016 to 2,073 a month this year — 69 a day — according to 311 data.
Noise pollution is a serious issue in the Five Boroughs and can have negative health effects beyond just being an annoyance, potentially leading to hearing loss, exacerbating stress and contributing to heart disease, according to experts.
The head of the activist group Stop the Chop NY/NJ, which seeks to end non-essential flights over the city, said government officials need to get real.
"Let the courts decide whether this runs afoul. Is she now acting as a judge and saying, ‘Oh, this might interfere with federal preemption’?" asked the organization's president Andrew Rosenthal.
"If she’s serious about doing something about helicopters, she and the mayor could close W. 30th tomorrow," he added.
The bill's first iteration in 2021 had another provision to bar New York City from leasing out its heliports for non-essential trips, but that version never advanced and lawmakers took cut it before reintroducing the law last spring.
Another piece of legislation in the City Council would take similar measures to ban those pleasure flights from the city's two heliports, but it has yet to have a hearing, despite getting 24 co-sponsors to sign on, nearly half the body's 51 members.
There are several other bills at the federal and local level in both New York and New Jersey to restrict non-essential helicopters, but so far none have managed to take off.
The city’s three heliports are all in Manhattan below 34th Street, and those facilities have logged up to nearly 42,200 flights over the last year, or more than 115 per day.
That number rises to 165 flights over Manhattan each weekend, according to another recent analysis cited by the Daily News.
Up to nearly 13,000 flights annually have emanated from the W.30th Street site alone in recent years — about 36 a day — including commuter flights like Blade, along with government, police, military, emergency services, and press choppers.
The facility is owned by the Hudson River Park Trust, a city-state public benefit corporation controlled by the governor, the mayor, and the Manhattan borough president, and the helicopters net about $1.7 a year to help fund the waterfront park.
The West Side helipads have been a point of contention for years. Advocates for the park sued the Trust in 2007 to remove it, but they settled on relocating it by 2014, and the state passed a bill a year before that deadline to allow it to stay there forever.
The winds beating from the helicopters have even thrown children off their bikes along the adjacent greenway, a member of the park’s Advisory Council claimed earlier this year.
The idea to close the facility altogether gained new traction for Hoylman in light of Thursday's defeat.
"Now we have to look at other measures to provide relief to West Siders including the overdue efforts to close the Hudson River Park heliport as well as the concession agreements that the city has with tourist companies," he said.
The city's quasi-public Economic Development Corporation manages the other two facilities at E. 34th Street and at Pier 6 in Lower Manhattan.
City officials have used concession agreements with helicopter companies to move all sightseeing trips to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in 2010, and have banned them from flying over land and prohibited them entirely on Sundays since 2016.
The city is currently bidding out a new operating agreement for the downtown facility, which is 95 percent tourist trips, but EDC reps at a recent Council hearing dismissed further limiting flights after the current lease with Saker Aviation Services expires in April, claiming people would just divert to even less regulated sites in New Jersey.
Rosenthal of Stop the Chop pointed out that Hochul has come under fire for her own frequent use of executive aircraft for trips across the vast Empire State, following in the footsteps of her scandal-scarred predecessor Andrew Cuomo, who flew more often than other governors of large states, sometimes up to four times a day.
Early this year Hochul reimbursed taxpayers $11,000 for three days of misusing aircraft to get to campaign events on the public's dime.
She took an estimated $2,500 chopper flight from Albany to a Queens gas station last June for a brief photo op promoting her gas tax holiday, and also hopped a flight to watch the Buffalo Bills in September, according to a New York Post analysis of some 140 flights by the governor.
Hochul defended her frequent trips saying she needed to connect to New Yorkers all over the large state, and that she is "allowed to go home" to Buffalo.
Kevin Duggan joined Streetsblog in October, 2022, after covering transportation for amNY. Duggan has been covering New York since about 2017 after getting his masters in journalism from Dublin City University in Ireland. After some freelancing, he landed a job with Vince DiMiceli’s Brooklyn Paper, where he covered southern Brooklyn neighborhoods and, later, Brownstone Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter at @kduggan16. And his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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