How would you feel if the local government was trying to acquire property that had been in your family since 1939 — whether you wanted them to or not?
That is the situation facing the Solberg family in Readington Township, in central New Jersey. They own 726 acres, which includes Solberg-Hunterdon Airport (KN51). The family will spend a good part of the summer in court fighting the township’s attempts to acquire their property through eminent domain. Eminent domain is the government’s power to take private property for public use.
The outcome of the court case will determine whether the township has the right to take the lion’s share of the family’s land holdings and keep it as open space.
About 100 acres of the family’s land is used as a general aviation airport. The airport was founded in 1939 by aviation pioneer Thor Solberg. In 1941 the Readington Township Committee gave Thor Solberg permission to operate a commercial airport on his land. During World War II the airport was used as a training facility, with Thor Solberg teaching some 5,000 young men to fly.
Today the airport has a 3,735-foot asphalt runway and a 3,442-foot turf runway. It is served by both an RNAV and VOR approach. Every year, the airport hosts many community events, such as a balloon festival, Easter Bunny Fly-in, and a very popular World War II fly-in on Armed Forces Day.
The Solberg family property is one of the last pieces of open space in the Readington Township. Some people are worried about the airport turning into a jet facility. Others are worried that the Solberg family will sell the land to developers to be turned into subdivisions and box stores.
The Solberg family say neither concern is valid.
In 2006 a $22 million bond ordinance was passed requiring the township to either acquire the 625 open acres surrounding Solberg Airport and the development rights to about 100 acres used for airport operations, or to negotiate a settlement with the airport owners. Earlier this year the two parties attempted to settle their differences in mediation, but when no settlement was reached the issue went to Superior Court in Somerville.
The Solberg family, speaking through their attorney Laurence Orloff, say the airport and the surrounding property is not for sale — or acquisition by any other means, including eminent domain.
According to Orloff, the township is going to court in an attempt to take control of the airport.
James Rhatican, the attorney for Readington Township, declined to comment for this story, citing the trial in progress.
The long legal battle has taken a toll both emotionally and financially on the Solberg family. The airport’s website contains details of how the family has been denied in their attempts to improve the airport and how the township’s actions have made it more difficult to stay in business by hampering the family’s ability to maintain the airport to a competitive standard.
“The Solbergs want Readington Township to back off and let them keep their property,” said Orloff. “They want to be able to expand and modernize the airport in a modest way. They want the township to stop with the pretext of taking this property to keep it as open space.”
The Solberg’s plans for the airport were made public in 1996 in an Airport Master Plan. Airport Master Plans are long-term plans, often stretching 20 to 30 years out, which include items such as runway lengthening and strengthening, hangar construction, and surface road improvements.
The Solberg Master Plan calls for the lengthening of the paved runway to 5,000 feet, and extending the turf runway to 3,700 feet. There are also plans to add 500,000 feet of hangar and office space. The master plan received conditional approval from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the FAA, but was blocked by the Readington Township Committee.
Orloff noted that the case will be heard throughout the summer, and will likely go back for appeal no matter who wins. In the meantime, the Solbergs watch another summer go by, unable to make any improvements at the airport.
“It would be foolish for the Solbergs to do any improvements now, since they do not know which way the case will go,” Orloff noted.
He added that the family has made numerous overtures to the Readington Township Committee to avoid having their land taken by eminent domain, including agreeing to deed restrict the uses of their land to allay any unfounded fears of large jet traffic or commercial development.
For more information: Solbergairport.com