States and municipalities have long been involved with the improvement and operations of local airports using their power in the areas of zoning, taxation, and development. And, they have wielded the powerful tool of eminent domain to assist airports in their development by acquiring the land necessary to make needed improvements. But now, as the owner and operator of Solberg Airport in Readington, NJ, a small, family-owned, public-use general aviation facility, we are experiencing the more nefarious side of eminent domain.
For the first time, a local municipality in New Jersey is seeking to use eminent domain to seize almost all of the land of an airport - Solberg - including runway safety areas and runway end protection zones, to prevent any further improvements to the safety, security, and utility of the facility.
The Readington Township Committee, the municipal government of the community that the airport has served for almost 70 years, has been engaged in a well-funded misinformation campaign and legal battle. In its zeal to seize the property and property rights through eminent domain, Readington is unabashedly misleading its own citizens, through fear and intimidation, about the impact of the airport's future role in the community.
Understandably, my family is devastated. We are now being threatened with the risk of losing a family legacy and aeronautical resource that was entrusted to us by our father, a pioneer in aviation history. Although we have repeatedly pledged to local politicians that we would address all legitimate objectives of the community in defining the future role of the airport, officials remain determined to turn a deaf ear and proceed with their seizure plan. If successful, it will undermine the future of our aviation system and cost our local taxpayers millions of dollars in property costs and legal fees. We've even pledged to guarantee a negotiated solution by placing a deed restriction on our own property. This proposal was ignored.
The process is certain to require litigation, numerous hearings, millions of dollars in legal and consultant fees, and could drag out for years and years to come.
The Larger Issue
A seizure of Solberg Airport under the awesome power of eminent domain is not solely a threat to our family business; it could set a devastating precedent for future airport condemnations. This kind of eminent domain abuse could be an irrevocable blow to the vital role that community airports play in both our local and national economies.
With large tracts of contiguous land becoming scarcer, developers and municipalities are increasingly turning their attention toward general aviation airports - where they see huge profits in land-use conversions. According to the Institute for Justice, eminent domain is being invoked in hundreds of cities in order to increase municipal profits in the name of the public good. As we engage in this fight, we've learned an important lesson: In order to proactively fight threats like eminent domain, airport owners must demonstrate to their communities that airports are not only for people who fly.
The burden of proof rests on airport owners to demonstrate that their airports play a vital economic role in attracting investment dollars and contributing significant social and economic benefits such as taxes, jobs and community services. Small airports are an integral part of our national aviation system, which is the underpinning of our national economy.
Solberg Airport has asked that the township committee respect our right to keep the land that has been in our family for generations, and join us at the negotiating table in a good faith effort to settle the future role of the airport in a way that benefits all parties.
Concurrently, it's time for both federal and state governments to step up to their responsibility and examine how they might use their regulatory powers to ensure the integrity of our national aviation infrastructure by protecting privately owned airports from the abuse of eminent domain by local municipalities.
Eminent domain historically assisted the development of airports through land acquisition that made possible the necessary improvements to safety and utility; now, the expanding application of eminent domain to control land use threatens to crumble the very aviation infrastructure it helped to build.