Planning Board to Hear Expansion Plan for Princeton Airport Amid Complaints of Excessive Noise
By Barbara A. Preston | November 14, 2022
Neighbors Seek Solace from Stress, Anxiety Due to Increased Air Traffic Noise
The Montgomery Planning Board will hear preliminary and final major site plans tonight at town hall at 7 pm for proposed modifications to a prior application granting approval for an expansion to Princeton Airport.
Some things have changed since the board originally approved the expansion back in 1998. The population around the airport has grown rapidly, and multiple new high-density developments are under way. At the same time, the number of planes and helicopters using the air strip has soared. Neighbors say it creates non-stop noise, interfering with their ability to work, sleep, and enjoy their yards and patios.
A helicopter takes off from Princeton Airport on Route 206 in Montgomery Township. (Montgomery News file photo.)
The expansion of an existing hangar and construction of a new hangar would house 10 additional planes. Plus, the plan calls for 13 or 14 new tie downs, for a total of about 24 planes.
The airport owners did not provide any data on the number of aircrafts that currently reside at the airport. Nor did they present data on the number of daily touch downs and take offs from the airstrip, today compared to 24 years ago.
In addition to demographic changes and urbanization of a formerly rural area, environmental regulations, too, have changed.
New Stormwater Regs
The airport now has to abide by new storm water regulations that were not required 24 years ago. The state of New Jersey enacted the measure to limit flood damage from storms such as Hurricane Ida, which recently devastated the Montgomery area.
“We got hit with the new stormwater regs,” Engineer David Schmidt told the planning board on behalf of the airport on October 10. “It requires the filing of a maintenance manual. We have prepared the manual but we have not filed it. And now we have to do a new detention basin because the rules have changed again. Now we have to modify two bio detention facilities for these hangars to meet the new standards. We are asking the board to remove the requirement to file the maintenance agreement for phase one but to require it for phase two.”
The airport’s application has been carried over to the Montgomery Planning Board’s November 14 meeting, when airport owner Ken Nierenberg of Rocky Hill is able to attend the meeting. He was out of town and not present at the October 10 meeting. The planning board specifically requested Nierenberg’s presence so he may address his neighbors’ concerns.
Excessive, Non-Stop Noise
Many airport neighbors from Rocky Hill, Princeton, and just one from Montgomery spoke at the October meeting about how excessive noise from helicopters and airplanes are ruining their quality of life.
Montgomery Planning Board Vice Chairperson Sarah Roberts asked "Would we be allowed to down zone the Princeton Airport? Take away development rights?"
Montgomery Planning Consultant Michael F. Sullivan responded, “Not without a lot of money and lawyers.”
“Small airports like this in New Jersey are endangered. And the [Department of Transportation] DOT recognizes that. They support these airports. And that’s why they have the flight schools ... There is a great policy impetus for these airports to remain,” Sullivan said.
Three flight schools currently operate out of Princeton Airport. There are also flight schools from the Trenton-Robbinsville Airport and other local airports that land at the Princeton Airport.
Rocky Hill resident Patricia Sanson spoke at the October meeting, recalling how she came home from walking her dogs around the block to find an airplane door that had dropped from the sky onto her front steps.
“That could have been on me,” she said. “I reached out to the FAA and the airport and I got nothing from anybody. No one has addressed the safety of the increased traffic,” she said. “I live in a tiny historic home in Rocky Hill. When they fly over at night, it literally shakes the pictures hanging on the walls.”
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Princeton resident Emmett J. Lescroart asked the Montgomery Planning Board to not approve any expansion to the airport without first changing the flight plan. Pilots now fly until Cherry Hill Road, then west over the Princeton ridge, he said. “With all of the flights associated with the flight schools, we are seeing a plane pretty much all day long, every day, seven days a week.”
“It starts at 7:30 am, every single day, including Sunday, and goes until 8 pm. The FAA recommends that flight schools fly over industrial, commercial, or remote areas, and to avoid schools and churches. That’s not what we are doing here," Lescroart said. "The Princeton ridge has some of the most exclusive homes in the area, whose owners, I believe, are entitled to some sort of peace and quiet, and not a continuous barrage of airplanes and noise. They used to fly over Coppervail [Court], [in Montgomery Township] but I guess they got it changed to our neighborhood.”
Christine Witt of Rocky Hill told the planning board that she has lived in her home for 20 years, since 2002. “I’ve noticed at least since 2017 the volume of helicopters circling over my house every day from as early as 7:30 am until 10 pm. They just circle and circle and circle.”
“In 2017 I did call the airport to complain and the response I received was: ‘We’re just a parking lot. Register a complaint with the FAA.’” Witt went online, registered a complaint on November 8, 2017. Someone from the FAA responded that there was “insufficient evidence to proceed with action,” and they closed the complaint.
“I strenuously oppose to having more of these tie downs,” she said. “One of my passwords is, I hate helicopters with five exclamation points. Really, you try to sit outside on your deck to enjoy a nice day and its just noise from the helicopter. I going running on the canal and there’s a helicopter following me. I just can’t get away. This is finally an opportunity to let people know how this is affecting my life.”
Wendy W. Rayner of Princeton said that when the Montgomery Planning Board approved the expansion, they had not anticipated the air traffic that is now in the sky over the Princeton area. “The helicopter school is insufferable,” she added. “If I’m sitting on my patio, I have to stop my conversation [when the helicopters go by] because I cannot hear the other person. My quality of life is highly impacted.”
Rayner asked the board to please reconsider the plan. "See if this is what people want to have?" she asked. "Do you want this impacting your residents in Montgomery. Please investigate the air traffic and noise."
Sign at Princeton Airport.
Eunice Wong, a 16-year resident of Princeton, is an award-winning, Juilliard-trained actor who makes a living narrating audiobooks for Audible, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Random House.
“This is my livelihood, not a hobby,” she told the planning board. “In the last year, the increase in air traffic noise has been significant, and has forced me to start working at night. I have a family, two kids, so it’s a very tough schedule to handle. When I’m recording during the day, every couple of minutes there is an airplane, or helicopter, and my mic picks it up. My editors will reject it."
“It’s not an inconvenience. It’s wrecking my way of life,” she said. “I’m extremely concerned with the air traffic noise. There is no limit to the number of flights every day. And it is about profits. If they can get in more and more students, more flights, then it’s more money for them.”
“Those of us on the ground, who’s comfort, health, and livelihoods depend on not having this thunderous noise in our lives are just trampled on.”
Wong mentioned that she has a professional double-walled cabin, and noise still penetrates it. “The noise gets in. A low-flying propeller plane was circling my neighborhood for a half hour. It wasn’t going anywhere. Just circling, going around and around and around.”
Richard A. Newhouse, newly arrived from Germany, designed and built planes in Rocky Hill as early as 1911. Later, as several of his offspring took to the air, he established the Newhouse Flying Service at Bolmer’s Field, which has become Princeton Airport. (From The Princeton Recollector.)
Ramin Rezvani of Rocky Hill said helicopter and air traffic has definitely increased. “I also noticed in the application that the fire department said the hangar could not be used for gatherings, but they are being used for certain events throughout the year.”
“My main complaint. I have two small kids, and an eight-year-old. The younger ones cannot take a nap. The helicopters are extremely loud,” he said.
Andrew Davis of Skillman said, “I did not know there was a settlement agreement from 1998. I’ve lived in town for eight years, in a development close to the airport. Since I’ve lived here, there has been a lot of new housing built, being built, and to be built.”
“Before the board would approve an expansion of the airport, and I believe it is an expansion, I would ask that the board get some kind of legal analysis or assessment regarding what exactly this settlement agreement allows. That [settlement] agreement is now 26 years old, so there’s been a lot of change in the area, even in Montgomery. There are a lot more residents.”
Rocky Hill Mayor “Bob” Uhrik attended the meeting and said many residents have spoken about how the airport noise disrupts their lives. The FAA refuses to do anything about it. Meanwhile, residents surrounding that airport are experiencing stress, anxiety, inability to work, and continued exposure to high concentrations of prolonged noise, which is known to lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, mental health issues, and many other health issues.
“No compromises are being made by the airport,” Mayor Uhrik said.
What could be done?
Limiting scheduled flight school hours.
Modify flight patterns so the helicopters do not circle around and around and around every two minutes over the same properties from 7 am to sometimes 9 pm. Really!
Limit flights in and out and touch downs from other flight schools at neighboring airports: Trenton-Robbinsville Airport; Central Jersey Airport ...
Require mufflers on small aircraft. Why not?
Uhrik says he hopes the community and the airport owners can come to a voluntary solution.
Next, maybe the towns in the area can come to an agreement on leaf blowers, chain saws, and wood chippers that accompany the aircraft sounds. The symphony does not lead to good vibrations. ■