New York City

NYC Council considers bills banning tourist helicopters

Brooklyn, Manhattan residents testify about 'incessant' noise, pollution

November 14, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The New York City Council heard testimony on Thursday from frustrated residents and officials seeking to prohibit noisy tourist helicopters from taking off at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 on the East River.  Photo by Don Evans
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In a City Council hearing lasting for hours on Thursday, Brooklyn and Manhattan officials and residents expressed anger and despair over incessant helicopter noise and pollution.

The complaints have been piling up for years about racket from the ever-increasing number of sightseeing helicopters taking off at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport at Pier 6 on the East River – the only heliport in the city that still allows them.

Two bills sponsored by Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca (Red Hook, Sunset Park), Helen Rosenthal (Upper West Side) and Margaret Chin (Lower Manhattan) seek to prohibit tourist helicopters, which tend to be noisier than other choppers. Police, fire, news, and charter helicopters would be unaffected.

A third bill, introduced by Councilmember Paul Vallone (College Point, White Stone, Little Neck), would affect helicopters flying over Northeast Queens.

Opponents of the copter flights say the nonstop noise is stressing out residents in their homes on both sides of the East River, along with visitors to parks — including Brooklyn Bridge Park — and students attending schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Governors Island.

At a noon rally, Menchaca, the legislation’s prime sponsor, called the hearing “transformative” because it was the first time that this issue would be given air time at a hearing, backed by a piece of legislation.

Rosenthal, co-prime sponsor, said in a joint statement, “On some days helicopters fly overhead 18 times an hour, up and down the Hudson, and the noise pervades the park, the streets, and even people’s homes.”

“I have long called for an end to the incessant nuisance posed by the high volume of tourist helicopter traffic over our homes, parks, schools and workplaces,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler (Financial District, Battery Park City, Red Hook, Sunset Park). “We should not be protecting a single tourist experience at the expense of the quality of life and safety of New York residents along the tourist helicopter flight paths.”

Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (Red Hook, Williamsburg, parts of Queens and Manhattan) said that helicopter noise has affected the quality of life for Brooklyn and Manhattan residents, adding that the flights also raise serious safety concerns.

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown, Gowanus) called the “never-ending attack” on Downtown Brooklyn’s quality of life by tourist helicopters unacceptable, and said the city needed to work together to limit the amount of noise caused by tourist helicopters.

Roberto Gautier, a resident of 140 Cadman Plaza West in Brooklyn Heights, said in his testimony on Thursday that the chopper flights added to his neighborhood’s already high noise, stress and pollution levels.

“Helicopter accidents are sure to come,” he said. “Near-misses are increasing. It is estimated that there are 300 flights daily over residential neighborhoods. The flight paths are not supposed to be over land, but that is not the case.”

“If we want peace and quiet, why do we insist on living in the ‘city that never sleeps?’ Why would any city advertise itself as the city that never sleeps?” he asked.

The City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection would have to approve the legislation before the bills could go to the full council for a vote. (The New Jersey State Assembly is considering similar legislation, which would prevent tourist helicopter operation from resuming from a nearby location.)

A spokesperson for Councilmember Menchaca told the Brooklyn Eagle on Friday that there is as yet no set timetable for the committee vote.


Number of helicopter flights soars

According to figures supplied by the Brooklyn Heights Association, helicopter operations from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, directly across from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, have soared 600 percent in the last 14 years to a current level of 60,000 per year — and they’re increasing. Of these, 80 percent or more are sightseeing flights.

Sightseeing helicopter flights were moved to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport after two other heliports operated by the city were closed to tourist helicopters in 1997 and 2010, following similar complaints.

State Sen. Daniel Squadron (north Brooklyn waterfront, Lower Manhattan) in joint testimony with state Sen. Brad Hoylman (East Village, Midtown), said that the neighborhoods “in the chop zone” now endure the entire impact of tourist flights.

“This was a policy outcome that nobody thought a good idea,” Squadron said in his written testimony. Squadron said that the city had intended to eliminate nonessential tourist helicopter operations at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport when they assumed control of it in 2005.

Squadron challenged the city’s Economic Development Corp. to spend a spring weekend on Governors Island.

“The chop is deafening and disturbing. It is clear that one cost of concentrating the entire impact of tourist flights in one community is that the city is compromising the experience of thousands [of] park-goers at multi-hundred million dollar parks.”

From left: Councilmembers Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca at Thursday’s hearing. Photo by William Alatriste for the New York City Council Squadron said the bills need to pass because “we have tried other solutions.”

In 2010, officials drew up new regulations, which altered flight paths, banned short flights and increased city monitoring.

“We have tried it, and it has not worked,” Squadron said. “By the Economic Development Corporation’s own account, few, if any, violations have been issued. Until our office’s recent intervention, the standard response to 311 complaints for helicopters included a request for helicopter tail numbers, an absurd requirement that caused many of our constituents to give up on reporting the noise at all.”

Helicopter industry representatives say that the tourist flights are a key source of revenue to the city. The 2012 industry-commissioned study “Heliports and Their Importance to New York City” estimates that the direct and indirect or “induced effects” of the helicopter tourism industry generates $33.2 million in economic output in New York City; 133 full-time-equivalent jobs; and $11.3 million in employee compensation.

On Friday, Rosenthal debunked these figures.

“These inflated figures are based on the ludicrous premise that tourists choose to come to New York City to take a 15 minute helicopter ride, and that the money tourists spend at hotels, restaurants, and Broadway shows is due to the existence of the helicopter tourism industry,” she said in a statement. “We disagree. New York City does not depend on the tourist helicopter industry for tourism.”

Rosenthal added, “Beyond the $2.8 million the city receives due to a concession agreement for allowing tourist helicopters to operate out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, there is little economic impact from the helicopter tourism industry that cannot be absorbed through other tourist industry options.”


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