Solberg Airport owners' lawsuit aims to kill Readington safety zone ordinance

Another legal fight has erupted over the condemnation proceedings seeking to take the land around Solberg Airport in Hunterdon County, this time sparked by the family owners who want an airport safety zone in Readington Township scrapped.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the family partnership that owns the airport, Solberg Aviation Co., on July 19 in state Superior Court in Flemington, attacks the validity of an ordinance passed by the Readington Township committee that created the zone.

Township officials insisted they approved the ordinance on June 6 to comply with state law.

The lawsuit, however, argues the ordinance fails to bring the township into compliance, and instead is an "extension of Readington's long-term efforts to constrain the use and operation of the airport, together with its companion action - the eminent domain proceeding" filed in court by the township in September.

The suit requests that a judge throw out the ordinance, impose an injunction that requires airport zoning of its entire 700-acre property, and grant relief for attorney's fees, legal costs and damages.

Suzanne Solberg Nagle, one of the siblings who own the airport, said the family declined to comment on the lawsuit yesterday.

Mayor Gerard Shamey said the lawsuit was not a surprise after the Solbergs had already objected to the ordinance in writing at the time of its passing.

"The township will vigorously defend the challenge to the ordinance," said Shamey, who had not yet been served a copy of the suit yesterday.

Both sides have been at odds after the Solberg family was unsuccessful in negotiations that would have sold the airport to the state Department of Transportation.

Township officials, long-resistant to major airport expansion, responded with condemnation proceedings seeking to purchase 625 acres around the airport to preserve as open space, and leaving roughly 100 acres for the airport, restricting development rights.

Attorneys for the Solberg family later discovered that the township had not complied with a 24-year-old state statute calling for an airport safety zone that would restrict development rights in the surrounding acreage.

Officials conceded they had not complied due to wording in the statute that allowed "routine improvements," and which they feared could lead to significant expansion plans at the airport.

A consultant allayed concerns with a letter of interpretation from the state that clarified the improvements would not involve building structures or extending runways beyond regulated lengths.

Consultant Tom Thatcher, also former director of the state Division of Aeronautics, went on to write the ordinance. Officials also had touted the ordinance for providing potential benefits to the Solberg family and their 68-year-old airport.

The ordinance includes "permitted accessory uses," that include a 40-seat maximum restaurant, gift shop, museum and up to five rental car agencies on site.