Score one for Solberg-Hunterdon Airport (KN51), the embattled privately owned, public use airport in Readington Township, New Jersey. On May 4, Superior Court Judge Paul W. Armstrong dismissed the township’s lawsuit to acquire the development rights to the airport through eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the power to take private property for public use by a state or national government so that it can be devoted to public or civic use or, in some cases, economic development. The most common uses of property taken by eminent domain are for government buildings, public utilities, highways, and railroads.
In his 54-page ruling, Armstrong said that the condemnation plan implemented by the Township of Readington was “orchestrated to prevent airport expansion under the pre textual banner of open space policy, amounting to a manifest abuse of the power of eminent domain.”
Armstrong noted that Readington Township, which is located in central New Jersey, is currently 41% open space.
New Jersey state law allows for eminent domain to acquire and preserve open space. The Solberg property consists of 726 acres, of which about 100 acres is used as a general aviation airport. The rest are woods, wetlands and open grass fields.
The airport was founded in 1939 by Thor Solberg, Sr. In 1941, the Readington Township Committee gave Solberg permission to operate a commercial airport on his land. During World War II the airport was used as a training facility, with 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, an Easter Bunny Fly-In, and a very popular World War II fly-in on Armed Forces Day.
The airport is still owned and operated by the Solberg family, making it one of the oldest privately owned, continuously operated airports in the United States. There are approximately 70 aircraft based at the airport.
Some people in the community are worried about the airport turning into a jet facility. The anti-airport faction logo is the silhouette of a jet in a red circle with a slash through it. Others are worried that the Solberg family will sell the land to developers and it would be turned into dense subdivisions, strip malls and box stores.
The Solberg family insists the property is not for sale.
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 Solbergs. In early 2014 the township and the Solberg family attempted to settle their differences in mediation, but when no settlement was reached the issue went to Superior Court in Somerville, N.J.
The trial began in May 2014 and ended in January 2015. According to accounts in the local newspaper, the judge heard testimony from 11 witnesses, and reviewed more than 800 pieces of evidence and 5,600 pages of court transcripts.
In his decision, the judge was critical of the township officials’ use of a public relations firm to create voter opposition to the airport.
The Solberg family referred requests for comment to their attorney Laurence Orloff.
“Judge Armstrong’s opinion speaks eloquently to what the Solbergs have been put through,” he noted. “If the court had found it necessary, it could have gone on for many, many more pages in describing the unfortunate conduct of Readington’s officials. The question that should be asked at this point is not what happened, but why it happened. Why were the Solbergs, who are lifelong residents of Readington and whose families intend to remain in Readington, subjected to the kind of treatment by the leadership of the township that occurred for at least two decades and probably more? Why were the Solbergs, and all of the other taxpayers of Readington, put to the enormous expense that has saturated this matter for all of these years?
“The result of Judge Armstrong’s decision is that Readington, in addition to the millions it has paid out to its own counsel, experts, and consultants over the years, will now be held responsible for such amounts as the court determines to be due to the Solbergs under the law as a result of the decision, which amounts will also likely be in the millions,” he continued. “None of this was necessary. It was the result of the myopic view that Solberg Airport was going to become another La Guardia being drummed into the collective psyche of too many citizens misled by the township leadership.”
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 thwarted in their attempts to improve the airport and how the township’s actions have made it more difficult to stay in business by limiting the family’s ability to maintain the airport to a competitive standard.
For example, in 1996 an attempt to update the airport Master Plan put the family at odds with the township. Master Plans are long-term plans, often stretching 20 to 30 years out. The Solberg family put forth items such as runway strengthening and lengthening the paved span from 3,700 to 5,000 feet and building 500,000 square feet of hangars with 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.
“The Solbergs not only have lived in Readington for all their lives, but they continue to aspire to be good township citizens, and they love the township as much as anyone,” Orloff said. “It is their hope, dashed so often in the past, that Readington will see the light and reach the type of reasonable accommodation with the Solbergs that is in furtherance of everyone’s interest.”
General Aviation News made several attempts to reach James Rhatican, the attorney for the township of Readington, but he did not return telephone calls or emails by press time.
“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.”