Residents living under the vast web of jet flight paths near the Westchester County Airport voiced their growing frustrations, including complaints and accusations, at a Sept. 6 public forum held at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center.
The county’s in-person meetings began last May as County Executive George Latimer has been seeking public input for an update of the airport’s Master Plan.
Deafening noise from aircraft, air pollution, and water contamination topped the list of complaints from speakers who were among the roughly 200 people at last week’s forum. Many who attended were residents of Chappaqua residents or neighboring 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 sounds like all day, all night.” Those in the auditorium heard a thunderous, 10-second audio clip of airplanes flying directly over Silverstein’s home. She said the noise has become a safety issue.
“I couldn’t hear my child scream when he fell and hurt himself because a plane was flying so low over my home,” Silverstein said.
While some speakers pointed out that the airport supports a viable local economy by bringing businesses to the area, New Castle resident Warren Gottlieb criticized Latimer for including airport revenue in the county budget.
“The county needs to resist the temptation to use Westchester County Airport as a vehicle for an economic expansion in the county,” Gottlieb said. “This is not the place to plug budgetary shortfalls.”
Latimer, uncharacteristically agitated, lashed back at the accusation.
“Let me be clear,” he said emphatically. “There is no profit at the airport that plugs a county budget hole. No revenue from the airport is used for balancing the county budget, and if you say that as fact, you are advancing a lie. Don’t misrepresent what this administration has done.”
A heated exchange between Latimer and Gottlieb ensued, which later prompted county Airport Advisory Board member and New Castle resident Robert Fleisher to explain that plugging the county budget was an unfortunate remnant left by Latimer’s predecessor Rob Astorino, who pursued efforts to privatize the airport. “The airport is an economic engine…and there is a hope that we can find better economic engines than the airport, which has a lot of negative externalities,” Fleisher said.
Latimer said the Master Plan will address economic impacts to businesses and major corporations moving into the county, including jobs and taxes.
Many blamed corporate and private jets for disregarding the voluntary midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew, urging the county to enforce the time limits for flights. Assemblyman Chris Burdick (D-Bedford) advised Latimer a strengthened curfew should be part of the Master Plan.
“I’ve been hearing from residents and constituents that the curfew is simply not being observed,” he said.
Briarcliff Manor resident Nancy Rogers Golodetz complained about smaller aircraft.
“I counted 15 helicopters a day flying low over my house,” Golodetz said.
Latimer responded that the county has launched a lawsuit against operators that use helicopter-based service to operate at the airport.
“We think that’s not allowed,” he said, adding, “the county is also involved in a legal action to deny a request by a commercial airline company for an additional hangar.”
Another issue raised was contaminated stormwater runoff from glycol-based aircraft de-icing fluid and PFAS, chemical substances in firefighting foams used at the airport decades ago, jeopardizing the 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 Rye Lake drinking watershed.
Henry Skelsey of Mount Pleasant claimed contamination from PFAS was already in his neighborhood. In 2017, PFAS was found in groundwater close to the airport in concentrations that were 14 times the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he said. PFAS has been linked to cancer, kidney disease, and birth defects.
“In my neighborhood, wells have already tested positive for PFAS,” Skelsey said. “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the county health board did not want to say (the contamination) came from the airport that is three miles away; however, there is no other credible source. We have had to all invest in several thousand-dollar filtration systems just to make our drinking water safe for our children.”
Latimer said the county was spending millions of dollars to prevent PFAS from entering the drinking watershed.
“It has not yet gotten into the drinking watershed,” Latimer said. “We are doing everything we can under the aegis of the DEC.”
He said County Attorney John Nonna, who attended the meeting, has been working with the DEC on the PFAS issue for the last four years.
New Castle Supervisor Lisa Katz reminded Latimer that in 2018 he held three separate community meetings in the town and heard residents vehemently complain about the airport’s negative environmental impacts.
“The message has not changed,” said Katz. “On behalf of the close to 18,000 residents I’m representing, we need to lower the environmental impact and use the airport as a hub for generating renewable energy, find ways to radically lower emissions, and eliminate the use of lead-based fuel in airport operations. We need to update the Master Plan.”
Latimer said a first rough draft of the Master Plan could likely be done by late October and, after some tweaking, the county could go public with it in November. “The bottom line is the Master Plan will be officially done when we all think it’s done, and then there will be public comment over it,” Latimer said.
Many speakers voiced frustration at the process and being unable to directly address 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 are the best practices (at airports) in other parts of the country,” Latimer said. “These public forums are to make sure that we know exactly what people’s concerns are and make the best possible case to the FAA.”
This was the fifth public forum since May to collect public input, including a virtual session in July. Another meeting will be held this Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. at Harvest Time Church, located at 1338 King St. in Greenwich, Conn.
Abby is a local journalist who has reported on breaking news for more than 20 years. She currently covers community issues in The Examiner as a full-time reporter and has written for the paper since its inception in 2007. Read more from Abby’s editor-author bio here. Read Abbys’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/ab-lub2019/