Local Airport Victory

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn 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.

FAA Proposes to Swallow Cornelia Fort Airpark Class C Exclusion

In a recent proposal, the FAA set forth its plan to take back a Class C airspace exclusion extending from the surface up to 2,400 feet MSL, which extends in a 1.5 NM radius around the former Cornelia Fort Airpark.  Although Cornelia ceased operations last year, the Class C exclusion remains approximately 4 NM north of Nashville International Airport (KBNA).  The only reason cited by the FAA for removing the Class C airspace exclusion is that “it would restore the Class C surface area to the standard configuration of a 5 NM radius around Nashville International Airport and would enhance the management of aircraft operations at the airport.”  However, the FAA failed to cite any current issue with the management of aircraft around KBNA which would necessitate removing the current exclusion.  Public comments regarding this proposal must be received by April 1, 2013.

GAO Report Could Mean Changes for Flight School Security

In a recently-released report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office examined the security of general aviation and U.S. flight training programs.  The report titled “GENERAL AVIATION SECURITY Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat” admits that when non-U.S. citizen flight students apply for pilot certificates the government does not fully vet them to ensure that they are not illegal aliens.  The report blames most of the issue on the lack of communication between federal agencies including the Transportation Security Administration the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A collateral issue has also emerged alleging that those Americans who appear on the TSA’s “no fly” list may still receive flight training despite the fact that they may not legally board a commercial airline (see article). The fallout from this report and the ensuing media sensation could trigger significant additions to and changes in the security measures imposed by the TSA and other government agencies on local flight schools. Given the already onerous regulatory climate in which flight schools must operate additional security requirements will set traps for unsuspecting flight school operators. Experienced legal counsel will be an essential tool for owners and operators attempting to navigate this ever-changing regulatory landscape.