Volume 77, Number 3 - January 2 - 8, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Helicopters are hellish, plus illegal, suit charges

By Albert Amateau

Friends of Hudson River Park and other waterfront advocates went to court on Dec. 11 to close down the W. 30th St. Heliport saying the noisy copter pad is illegal and should have been kicked out of its current spot in Hudson River Park years ago.

The State Supreme Court suit — joined by Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Lower Manhattan community groups and individuals — names as defendants the Hudson River Park Trust, the authority building the 5-mile-long riverfront park; Air Pegasus Heliport, Inc., which leases the heliport from the Trust; and Liberty Helicopters, Inc., which operates flights as a subtenant of Pegasus.

“The noise is frequent and intrusive and often intolerable. It is also the result of the illegal operations of the 30th St. Heliport,” said Albert K. Butzel, outgoing president of the Friends group, in an affidavit filed with the suit. “As flights come and go, particularly the tourist flights, they often move north and south along the park at low levels, making it difficult for those in the park and those living adjacent [to the park] to enjoy the quiet of the out-of-doors or even in their homes,” Butzel said.

The heliport operates 24 hours a day with as many as 100 daily flights, about 70 percent of them sightseeing, according to the suit. Noise measurements taken on the Hudson River Park bike path adjacent to the heliport ranged between 76 and 98 decibels, with an average of 89 decibels, compared to the 55 decibel level that the federal Environmental Protection Agency identifies as the maximum outdoor level. Readings 150 feet south of the heliport in a Hudson River Park seating area showed a noise level between 60 and 89 decibels, and at Pier 66 at W. 26th St. readings ranged between 61 and 74 decibels.

The Hudson River Park Act of 1998, which created the Trust, permits a heliport in the park, but only as a non-tourist/non-recreation heliport for commercial and emergency transportation. The act also prohibits any heliport being located east — on the land side — of the Hudson River shoreline bulkhead. The heliport is on the east side of the bulkhead.

The suit notes that the park’s 1998 environmental impact statement stated that any heliport within the park would have to be west of the bulkhead line — and that no sightseeing helicopter service could be anywhere in the park.

Air Pegasus has been operating the W. 30th St. Heliport under lease for more than 30 years, first under the Port Authority, then the New York State Department of Transportation and after 1998 “grandfathered” under the Trust because Air Pegasus had the lease before the Trust was created. But the grandfathered lease expired in 2001.

A holdover provision allows automatic month-to-month renewal but only if Air Pegasus has a five-year contract renewal. There has been no new contract, and the suit notes that the Park Act requires the Trust to take steps to eliminate any illegal use, like the heliport, from the park. “Yet the Trust has done nothing to eliminate [the heliport],” the suit charges.

Butzel’s affidavit implies that James Ortenzio, chairperson of the Hudson River Park Trust from 1999 to 2003, was responsible for the Trust continuing the month-to-month arrangement with Air Pegasus. In November of this past year, the affidavit notes, Ortenzio pleaded guilty to tax evasion related to $80,000 paid to him by Air Pegasus for consulting services to settle a dispute between Pegasus and another helicopter operator in 2004.

“While these services were rendered after Mr. Ortenzio was chairman of the Trust, we believe that throughout the period that he was chairman he had a close relationship with Alvin Trenk and his family, who own and operate Air Pegasus,” Butzel said. “Moreover, as far as we are aware, the board of the Trust has never taken up, at least in public, the issue of the legality of the Air Pegasus lease,” Butzel said.

Last May, Butzel, on behalf of the Friends of Hudson River Park, sent a letter to the Trust noting that the continued operation of the W. 30th St. Heliport was illegal and urged the Trust to close down the heliport.

Connie Fishman, president of the Trust, noted in a reply dated May 23 that the park’s environmental impact statement suggested two legal sites for the heliport, one on Pier 72, which is two blocks north of 30th St., and the other on Pier 76, across from the Javits Convention Center — each one a finger pier that could accommodate a heliport west of the bulkhead line.

Fishman said at the time that the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the Trust were developing a request for proposals for a new heliport — with no sightseeing flights — on Pier 72. But no request for proposals has been issued yet. Moreover, a State Senate resolution introduced last June would have amended the Hudson River Park Act to allow the heliport to continue with sightseeing and commercial flights until an alternative heliport is operating at Pier 72 or at another location approved by the Trust. But the Albany resolution went nowhere.

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for Air Pegasus said on Dec. 28 that the “clear intent of the act envisions continuity of the existing [30th St. Heliport] until a suitable alternative is found and operational.” Air Pegasus added that an active heliport is a benefit to New York City and the Hudson River Park.

Chris Martin, spokesperson for the Trust, said the authority could not comment on pending litigation.

However, the lawsuit says that eliminating the heliport has become urgent since December 2006, when a stretch of the Hudson River Park between W. 26th and 29th Sts. opened just south of the “noise and poisonous fumes” of the heliport.

Moreover, Pier 66 Maritime — the popular neighborhood “town dock” on the railroad barge formerly moored at Pier 63 — is scheduled to open as a recreation site moored by the old railroad float bridge off W. 26th St. in the spring of 2008. The deafening helicopter noise would threaten the operation of the Pier 66 Maritime enterprise, the suit says.

Daniel Alterman, the lawyer for the Friends, said the lawsuit is seeking a temporary injunction compelling the Trust to serve Air Pegasus with an immediate notice terminating the month-to-month lease and barring any lease renewal.

Alterman was the lawyer for the Friends’ lawsuit regarding the Department of Sanitation’s use of the Gansevoort Peninsula, another Hudson River Park site, between Gansevoort and Little W. 12th Sts. The settlement called for D.O.S. to remove its trucks and salt pile from the peninsula by 2012 or be subject to increased rent payments to the Trust.

In addition to the Friends, other plaintiffs in the heliport suit are Chelsea Waterside Park Association and Robert S. Trentlyon, a founder of the association; Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, covering the Midtown West waterfront; West Street Coalition, made up of Battery Park City residents; Pier 66 Maritime and John Krevey, owner and operator of the facility; and Andrew Berman, a W. 47th St. resident and a member of the Hell’s Kitchen group. Berman is perhaps best known as executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, but as a plaintiff in this case he is not wearing that hat.

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