N.J. Medevac Base in Bedminster Tests Airport's Authority

A half-dozen suits have been lodged since the State Police relocated the Medevac Unit and its fleet of Northstar helicopters to Somerset Airport.

Everybody wants a rescue helicopter when they need one, but nobody, it seems, wants one near his or her backyard.

At least not in Bedminster, home of Somerset Airport, where the state last year relocated the State Police Medevac Unit and its fleet of Northstar helicopters.

A half-dozen suits have been lodged since then, along with administrative actions, all of them testing the limits of municipalities' authority over airports within their borders.

Foes of the move range from the prominent - Forbes magazine editor-in-chief Steve Forbes and former Lucent chief executive officer Richard McGinn - to neighbors charging that the helicopter operation violates local zoning laws and seeking to abate airport noise.

Bedminster itself is a party. Its zoning officer determined such uses are counter to municipal code and ordered the township planning board to review Northstar-related airport renovations.

Somerset Airport owner Dan Walker in turn sued the township, winning an April 4 Superior Court ruling that the helicopter use and medevac operations are permitted airport uses under the New Jersey Aviation Act, N.J.S.A. 6:1-1 et seq.

Superior Court Judge Robert Reed also enjoined the township against interference with the medevac operations until the case is resolved.

Forbes and another neighbor, Phoebe Wesley, filed motions to intervene in that case, as did the Bedminster Branchburg Bridgewater Concerned Citizens Coalition. The coalition will appeal, says its lawyer, Alan Harwick.

On April 7, Reed dismissed the coalition's separate suit seeking a declaratory judgment that helicopters are not a permitted use at Somerset Airport under township ordinances. Reed found the Aviation Act and its administrative code preclude local zoning laws that differentiate between types of aircraft.

Superior Court Judge Peter Buchsbaum last month dismissed yet another suit by the coalition, charging the township improperly issued a permit for a Northstar staff office trailer at the airport.

Two more suits by the coalition are pending, one charging improper granting of permits for a new septic system and another claiming state laws require Northstar to be based at a hospital.

A separate suit against the airport, filed by former Lucent CEO McGinn, does not object to Northstar but focuses on aircraft noise in general.

Forbes and his wife, Sabina, have no quarrel with the arrival of Northstar but want to ensure that Bedminster's authority, to the extent it is binding by law, is respected by the airport, says their attorney, Richard Sasso, a Warren solo.

While federal and state governments generally have jurisdiction over airports, municipalities are left with limited governance of small, private airports, and the Somerset Airport litigation shows that the lines of authority aren't always clear.

The state Supreme Court sought to clarify the interplay between state and local control in Garden State Farms v. Bay , 77 N.J. 439 (1978), which says the state has ultimate jurisdiction over airports but must give due consideration to local regulations.

How much consideration is due is the point of contention.

The airport's lawyer, Lebanon solo William Mennen IV, says, "The law is very clear that authority over aviation in New Jersey rests with the commissioner [of the Department of Transportation] and no local action can conflict with that. The opposition has, I think, attempted to obfuscate those lines of authority."

Coalition lawyer Harwick says Reed's rulings have erred too far on the side of state authority. "It's our feeling that this just goes too far. It takes away from the local land use boards any review of the use of the facility," says Harwick, of Morgan, Melhuish, Monaghan, Arvidson, Abrutyn & Lisowski in Livingston.

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