Choppers are to be chopped down to fewer flights soon
By Albert Amateau
The noisy W. 30th St. Heliport, located within the Hudson River Park, will become progressively quieter beginning next year when sightseeing flights are reduced by half, and are eliminated entirely by April 1, 2010, according to a settlement in Manhattan State Supreme Court.
But commercial, government and emergency flights will continue at W. 30th St. until the end of 2014 or until a new heliport is in operation on a nearby pier outside of park boundaries, according to the settlement of the lawsuit filed by Friends of Hudson River Park and others against the Hudson River Park Trust, the state-city agency building the 5-mile-long park, and Air Pegasus, which has been operating the heliport for decades.
By the end of next month, Air Pegasus will build new buffers around unprotected areas of the heliport to reduce the noise, fumes and air gusts that reach park areas to the east and south, according to the settlement.
In addition, Air Pegasus will use its best efforts to move sightseeing takeoffs and landings to an existing barge along the north side of the heliport by Aug. 31 of this year. Furthermore, Air Pegasus will try to move all takeoffs and landings as far north as possible in the heliport to reduce noise and fumes on the Hudson River Park area immediately south of the heliport.
Daniel Alterman, attorney for the Friends and several West Side advocacy groups, filed the lawsuit at the end of 2007 to close the W. 30th St. heliport on the grounds that the Hudson River Park Act of 1998 prohibits tourist flights entirely and permits a heliport only west of the Hudson River bulkhead line, and only for commercial and emergency flights. The 30th St. Heliport is on the east side — the land side — of the bulkhead.
The settlement, which also includes limits on the total number of annual takeoffs and landings at the heliport and restricts the direction of all access flights to the west over the Hudson River, was described as the best practical solution to the need for business and government helicopter service while preserving the quiet and safety of the Hudson River Park.
The settlement calls for revised sightseeing flight patterns, “so as to have the least possible impact on adjacent and nearby Hudson River Park, including but not limited to the Pier 66 Boathouse and Pier 66 Maritime operation at 26th St. and on Battery Park City.”
Douglas Durst and Ross Graham, co-chairpersons of the Friends, said in a joint statement that the settlement, reached on June 20, “was an important milestone” for the Hudson River Park. “Reducing the number of helicopter flights in the park will greatly improve the experience of those who use the park. For too long, park users have been assaulted by dust, wind and noise from the heliport,” the statement says.
Durst and Graham paid tribute to Albert Butzel, who was president of Friends when the lawsuit was filed, and to Daniel Alterman and Arlene Boop, attorneys for the Friends.
Diana Taylor, chairperson of the Trust, lauded the “mutually beneficial settlement of a very thorny and complicated issue.” Taylor, former superintendent of the state’s Banking Department and currently a member of an investment firm, was appointed the Trust’s chairperson in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer. She is also an intimate friend of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“We reserve the most essential business, government and emergency needs for a West Side heliport while turning the facility itself into a friendlier neighbor to the park,” Taylor said. “I congratulate the Friends and the heliport operators on their ability to reach a sensible and well-crafted solution.”
The settlement commits the Trust to working with appropriate city agencies to approve a new, legal site for a West Side heliport by Dec. 31, 2012, possibly on Pier 72 two blocks north of 30th St., or on Pier 76 opposite the Javits Convention Center. Piers 72 and 76 both extend west of the bulkhead and could accommodate a heliport without amending the Hudson River Park Act. However, if the new heliport is not in operation by Dec. 31, 2014, the Friends can seek a court order to close the heliport entirely, according to the settlement.
Air Pegasus will also pursue an interim plan to relocate helicopter flights onto new barges moored about 100 feet west of the shoreline; the Friends agree to support the interim barge plan, assuming it is viable and complies with the Hudson River Park Act, the settlement says.
Alvin Trenk, a principal in Air Pegasus, said in a June 20 statement, “This is one of those rare occasions when we can truly say it is a win-win for the West Side.”
The agreement, Trenk said, recognizes the importance of an aesthetically pleasing park along the Hudson River while insuring that business, government, emergency and newsgathering helicopters have a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week heliport on the West Side.
Air Pegasus has been operating the heliport for more than 30 years, first on a lease from the Port Authority, and then from the New York State Department of Transportation and after 1998 on a month-to-month “grandfathered” lease from the Trust, because Air Pegasus had the lease before the Trust was created. But the grandfathered lease expired in 2001.
A holdover provision allowed automatic month-to-month renewals but only if Air Pegasus had a five-year contract renewal. There was no renewal and Friends of Hudson River Park filed the suit demanding the Trust cancel the month-to-month arrangement.
But Mayor Bloomberg has frequently reaffirmed the long-held city policy that a West Side Heliport is needed for business connections to major airports, and the settlement was reached after six months of negotiations to satisfy park use and transportation needs.
The phasing out of sightseeing flights under the settlement allows 25,000 such flights from June 1, 2008, to May 31, 2009. From June 2009 to March 31, 2010, the total number of sightseeing flights will be no more that 12,500. During the entire time, sightseeing flights on the West Side will be restricted to over the middle of the Hudson River.
The maximum number of both sightseeing and nonsightseeing flights at W. 30th St. will be 41,250 between June 2008 through May 31, 2009, and 26,050 from June 2009 through March 31, 2010. Beginning April 1, 2010, there will be no more than 16,250 annual flights from W. 30th St. However, flights resulting from a declared federal or state emergency will be exempt from those limits.
The settlement also sets hours of operation beginning June 1, 2009, to between 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Helicopters using the 30th St. Heliport agree to keep idling time to a minimum. A pilot who, after landing, anticipates more than a 30-minute wait until the next takeoff, will not keep engines running for more than 5 minutes, the settlement says. Helicopters departing from W. 30th St. will not start engines or charge batteries more than five minutes prior to takeoff or the time necessary to safely warm up, the settlement says.
John Dellaportas, chairperson of the West Street Coalition, a Battery Park City-based group and a co-plaintiff with the Friends in the lawsuit, said in an e-mail to members, “We view this as a great day for our community. While even in the long term this will not put an end to the helicopter traffic in our skies…this is a big step in the right direction.”
Robert Trentlyon, founder of the Chelsea Waterside Park Association and a plaintiff with the Friends in the suit, said of the settlement, “It’s not as much as we’d like — to get rid of the whole thing — but we thank Danny Alterman and Arlene Boop and the Friends for another victory for the Hudson River Park.”
Trentlyon recalled that Alterman and Boop were the attorneys for a Friends of Hudson River Park lawsuit that forced Basketball City in 2006 to surrender its tenure on Pier 63 at W. 23rd St. so that the pier could be incorporated into the park. Alterman was also the Friends’ lawyer in a lawsuit that resulted in an October 2005 agreement by the city’s Department of Sanitation to pay the Trust as much as $21.5 million until the department vacates the Gansevoort Peninsula just west of the Meatpacking District and Pier 97 at W. 57th St. so they both can be converted to Hudson River Park use.