KN51 in the middle of a tug of war

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.

IMG_3566About 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.

Solberg Airport 080Orloff 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.

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  1. Jeff Lavine says

    A public meeting was held in November in Readington, which was attended by over 500 concerned residents, pilots, and other interested parties. When indiduals were permitted to speak to the township committee, without exception they entreated the committee to stop the eminent domain proceeding and to let the Solberg’s keep and run their airport. Moral and financial issues were raised since this ongoing usurpation of the law has cost the residents millions of dollars. Four of the five members totally ignored the pleas of their constituents and voted to continue and expand the effort to take the airport. May they all rot in Hell.

    • Michael Dean says

      There is only one thing to say when elected representatives openly (or nay other way, really) ignore the instructions of their consituents…


    • Sarah A says

      When our elected officials ignore the voice of the People in an important issue like this it is clear that there is something very dirty going on in the background. Just look at the Santa Monica fiasco and you can see that eventually with enough press and the realization of the costs that the people will stand up and speak (i.e. hold a referendom). What the people in this case have come to realize that this legal battle has cost a LOT of money and if the purchase should go through there will be a significant liability taken up in the form of bonds issued to pay for the land. This is not Monopoly money and they cannot go to China and borrow money to pay off what they already borrowed. This is the peoples tax money so either taxes have to be raised or services have to be cut. The Federal government is one of the few government entaties in this country that can live beyond it means to buy favors from the electerate so this is and will continue to be a big drain on the taxpayers. Of course when the big bills come due these politicians will probably be long gone, fat with whatever payoff this land grab is securing for them.

      • Michael Dean says

        Well stated, Sarah. I would only add this…

        The only reason our federal goverment can live beyond it’s means, is because far too many of “we, the people” allow them to get away with it. It will catch up with them, and/or us, in time.

  2. says

    Pure example of how the rich control the country. Some county official has a friend or campaign donor who is attempting this takeover. Once done, and the Solbergs lose, I’ll bet you will seed subdivisions galore with both local buidlers and land investors making huge sums. Get the money out of politics or this country is doomed. Term Limits and a Constitutional Amemdment … no more political contributions and all radio, TV, and newspaper political adverstising is FREE. Just watch the advertising lobby and the KOCH brothers kill that.

  3. Jeff Aryan says

    A project of this size needs to be put forth before the voters in Plain English and let them decide what should be done.

    • Andrew Snyder says

      The problem to putting this to voters is :
      A. None of these voters are likely pilots.
      B. The only people that would show up to vote are people who would likely oppose the airport because they don’t understand the significance of general aviation airports.
      This airport has been around since 1939 and has great historical significance.
      The Solberg family gives back way more than they take in this community. Jeff if you want to get a better understanding of this I suggest you watch the documentary “One Six Right” But i’m biased, I train there as a student pilot, and I think the Solberg family is one of the nicest I have met.

      • Sarah A says

        If you tell them how much this is costing, and will cost, that might make for a bigger turnout of the NO vote. As stated in another reply there is going to be a day when the bills come due and that will represent a sizable drain on the local resources so it is either raise taxes or cur services (or both). That is what motivates the people to get out and vote, their wallet. Note that they were trying scare tactics with the claim that the runway lengthing could bring in those nasty, noisy jets. That is actually a good thing, they represent prosperity in the region and could be a sign of expanding business and that means more jobs which is a hot topic these days. They should be screaming for a bigger airport with jet service so they can attract these businesses to the area not trying to keep them out. It could even mean local airline service which might be very popular if the distance to the nearest air service is signifcant. You can’t phrase the argument with how it helps you, you have to show what it can do to satisfy the base desires and needs of the people, security and money.

  4. Will Jay says

    I think the township is just being mean. I mean here the land isn’t really their and they block the permits for the improvements so that people don’t like it so much and they the township could get it easier, enough said.

  5. Richard Warner says

    This kind of stuff seems to happen now & then all over the country and is a crime against these property owners. I can see using eminent domain in cases where owners won’t sell land needed for a highway widening project, but forcing these people off of their land under the guise of needing it for open space. What a bunch of B.S. I hope General Aviation News will keep us posted on this.

  6. Gordon says

    We are the government and we know better than any person what’s best. We will take this land and NEVER allow development on it, even when we are financially hurting and a developer offers us hundreds of millions of dollars we will not allow it to be developed…..

    • Sarah A says

      Point well made. Governments change regularly and are usually driven by the special interests that fund their elections not to mention line their pockets on the side. All it will take is the right offer from a greedy developer and you will see exactly what they say they want to prevent (even though there is no credible threat of such happening currently). The framers of our form of governemnt were very clear that they wanted to limit the powers of government to intrude on personal rights and this is exactly such a situation.
      There is no pressing public need for this taking of private property and it is clearly a gross over stepping of government power. Powers such as Eminant Domain need to be used sparingly and only as a last resort under exceptional circumstances. This needs to be shot down in the courts as an abuse of power before it can set one more precedent for the governemnt to abuse the rights of everyone. And when they create this ublic Greenspace which politician gets to have their name attached to it as a constant political ad ?

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