With the doors to the Weehawken ferry terminal closed against the cold wind on Feb. 18, you almost couldn’t hear the helicopters buzzing overhead. But you could feel them as their vibrations shook the windows, providing an ironic backdrop to a press conference of public officials seeking to find a way to stop what they say are excessive flights over residential areas of Hudson County.
Local, state and federal officials have been trying for more than a decade to curb tourist helicopters that have been crossing the skies over nearly every part of Hudson County, especially over northern Bayonne and the Gold Coast waterfront from Jersey City to Guttenberg.
Last year, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Congressmen Albio Sires (D-8th Dist.) tried to get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground flights that they said were damaging to the quality of life of Hudson County residents and posed economic and safety risks.
At the Feb. 18 press conference held in the waiting area of the Weehawken Ferry Terminal, Menendez said people have moved out of the Gold Coast partly because of the volume of noise imposed on these communities by the increasing number of tourist helicopters hovering over the Hudson County side of the Hudson River.
Failing to get a remedy from the FAA, Menendez and Sires have turned to their allies state Sen. Nicholas Sacco and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto to develop a possible local solution. Sacco and Prieto have introduced legislation that would allow the N.J. Department of Transportation (DOT) to deny helicopter access to any landing facility that is licensed by the state. Since nearly all the heliports in the state must receive licenses, this would deny tourist helicopters places to operate from.
“It’s a safety and a quality of life issue for New Jersey,” said Prieto, noting that he had opted for the legislation at the suggestion of Sires and Menendez.
Prieto sponsored the bill with Sacco, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, in an effort to impose local control when the federal government did not act.
Last October, Sires – who has taken the lead on this issue – sent a letter to the FAA highlighting the need for some control over tourist operations in the skies above Hudson County.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York has led a similar campaign against tourist helicopters in Manhattan, trying to deny them landing rights in city facilities. He said Mayor Bill de Blasio is reviewing possible restrictions.
Nadler said the argument against imposing restrictions in New York has always been that these helicopters and their tourist trade would move to New Jersey.
By imposing similar restrictions on housing and landing of tourist helicopters in New Jersey, New York could move ahead to outlaw landing rights to tourist helicopters at a number of municipally-owned facilities.
Impact all over the county
While the waterfront area is often subject to frequent low-flying craft, creating a racket over public parks and other areas, helicopters also fly at very low altitudes over sections of Union City and North Bergen as they pass over the Palisades to inland heliports.
Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City and Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken represent towns with some of the most significant negative impacts, and spoke in support of a bi-state coalition of community leaders in New York and New Jersey to end the proliferation of helicopter traffic over the Hudson River.
Zimmer said tourist helicopter proponents claim restrictions would hurt tourism, but she believes tourism is hurt more by the constant air traffic over parks and other public places.
Tightened restrictions in New York due to public safety concerns are part of the reason why tourist helicopters moved to the New Jersey in recent years.
Why there are more
In May 1977, the crash of a helicopter transporting passengers from JFK Airport to the top of what was then the Pan Am building near Grand Central Station killed five people. The incident caused a public outcry that ended routine helicopter landings inside Manhattan, which now has three helicopter ports, all of them located on the Hudson or East rivers.
As a result, a plethora of helipads also cropped up in parts of Hudson County. Helicopters allowed tourists to view some of the harbor icons such as the Statue of Liberty, and business people to bypass public transportation for easier access to Manhattan.
Menendez said tourist helicopters swarm in the skies over Hudson County along with new helicopters and medivac helicopters, creating a possible safety concern. He pointed to three accidents that have occurred over the last several years, once of which resulted in deaths.
A 2009 crash in the Hudson River – while not as traumatic as the 1970s Manhattan crash – became symbolic of a problem that local elected officials have been dealing with for years. But it also caused some of these operations to move to New Jersey after New York City issue stricter guidelines.
Currently there are two main areas where tourist helicopters park overnight, one in Linden and another in Kearny, Prieto said.
According to Freeholder Anthony Romano, the Kearny site also does repair of aircraft, and is the source of low flying air traffic over northern Bayonne. Helicopters take off from Kearny and often follow the Turnpike Extension Bridge to reach the Hudson River. These craft often fly just above the roof tops of residential housing and have raised outcry from concerned residents along these flight paths.
Mayor Fulop said this competition for space and risk for people on the ground is increased by the height of new development.
“I live in one of the homes facing New York, and I can tell you that sometimes I think I can wave to the pilot they’re so low as they fly by,” Sires said. “This is the Gold Coast. This is an area that has taken off like no other place in the country. People’s health and safety should not be compromised because people want to see New York in the summer. The practice of having helicopters fly at lower altitudes creates a constant noise nuisance and safety issue for those in New Jersey living along the Hudson River.” Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said that he and the freeholders also support efforts to limit the use of tourist helicopters.
“Sadly, the airspace above New York City and northern New Jersey seems more like the Wild West than the airspace above one of the most populated and congested metropolitan areas in America,” said Rep. Nadler. “For the last six months I have called on New York City to ban tourist helicopters from the downtown heliport in Manhattan and today I am proud to stand with Sen. Menendez, Rep. Sires and my colleagues in government in New Jersey in support of the state legislation introduced today by N.J. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and State Senator and Senate Transportation Chairman Nicholas Sacco to ban tourist helicopters operating out of heliports in New Jersey. The constant barrage of helicopter noise deeply impacts the quality of life for the residents of both states and it is simply unacceptable and must be addressed by all levels of government.”
Zimmer said it was important to work with New York representatives to coordinate an end to the tour helicopters.
“New York doesn’t want these helicopters, and New Jersey doesn’t want them either,” she said.
“Assembly Speaker Prieto and Senator Sacco have stood up for our communities by requiring the DOT take action to protect the thousands of residents impacted by these tourist helicopters on a daily basis,” said Mayor Fulop. “We thank them for their advocacy and for always putting the residents of Hudson County and New Jersey first.”
“The quality of life in our waterfront communities ought to trump tourism interests,” Hudson Executive DeGise said. “I know I speak for residents, all along our waterfront from North Bergen to Bayonne, who are grateful for the efforts of Sen. Sacco and Speaker Prieto on this issue at the state level. I strongly support this bill.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.