On May 4, 2015, a Hunterdon County Superior Court Judge issued a sharply worded 54-page ruling in the protracted eminent domain litigation involving Solberg Airport (N51) and Readington Township, New Jersey. Judge Paul Armstrong ruled that the Township’s claimed environmental purpose for condemning land owned by the airport was actually a “ploy” to thwart the airport’s expansion plans, which amounted to a “manifest abuse of the power of eminent domain.”
Characterizing the Township’s motives to create a contiguous open space greenway using airport property as “deliberate subterfuge,” Judge Armstrong noted that “the evidence clearly and convincingly shows that these reasons were a pretext for Readington Township’s true purpose, which was to limit the airport’s capacity to remain economically competitive and to limit its expansion”.
The case itself dates back to 2006, when the Township enacted an ordinance authorizing the taking of approximately 726 acres of land belonging to the airport. Initially, Township officials sought municipal control over factors like runway length, hanger size and jet aircraft noise at the airport. But after the ordinance authorizing the condemnation was passed in July 2006, Township officials were sharply criticized for the Township’s use of its eminent domain power in this regard. Following the advice of its retained public relations firm, the Township shifted focus from control over airport operations to preservation of open space.
Judge Armstrong noted that testimony of several Township officials showed “that each, after their own fashion, were faithful pupils of the shifting strategies of their public relations firm, CN (the public relations firm)”. According to the judge, Township officials publicly “demonized” the airport “by disseminating a catalog of fears and appeals to mistrust which mischaracterized” the expansion plans.
The court re-vested Solberg Aviation Co. with ownership of the property and awarded it counsel fees and expenses, including expert fees, to be calculated later and paid by the Township. The Township has forty-five days to file an appeal of this decision.
Land use and zoning are volatile issues, especially on the local level when concerning such high-profile uses as airports. Owners and operators should seek legal counsel with experience in both land use and aviation. The firm of Inglesino, Webster, Wyciskala & Taylor, LLC offers such expertise, as well as a wide-range of legal services, to its clients.