Harwick, who lives near the airport, says Reed should have developed a more extensive record. While Somerset Airport has been in business since 1949 and is used by other helicopters, the arrival of Northstar has aroused controversy because of its exceptional noise and its tendency to fly low over nearby homes, he says.
State officials say Northstar was relocated from the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark in response to rising demand for its services in semirural Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties, where long distances to a trauma center often necessitate airlifting of accident victims.
The Northstar Air Medical Program is run and piloted by the New Jersey State Police, which owns three Sikorsky S-76B helicopters, each capable of a carrying two pilots, four medical crew members and two stretcher patients.
Reed's April 4 ruling sets the stage for Bedminster's planning board to review plans to convert part of an existing hangar into offices, sleeping quarters and a kitchen for the Northstar crew. The township says living quarters aren't a permitted use under the site's zoning.
Airport lawyer Mennen says that if the town vetoes the proposal, the Aviation Act permits an appeal to the DOT commissioner. But he is unsure how far the DOT will go to override local authority. "When you start getting down to the internal modifications of an existing building, I'm not sure that's been tested," Mennen says.
Faced with opposition from local government, the DOT has been chary about wielding its authority over airports, says Kevin Kelly, of Newton's Kelly & Ward, who represented a skydiving school whose activities had been restricted at Newton Airport in Andover,
"The town really does have powers to give the airport a lot of trouble," says Kelly. "When a town doesn't want something and they get their legislators behind them and everybody starts lobbying the DOT, the DOT just naturally doesn't want to stand up to that."
Kelly says the line between state and local control remains fuzzy. "The [DOT] commissioner is supposed to give consideration to the town's position. Nobody knows where these lines are in these cases, so they get litigated time and time again," he says. "There's so much room for argument that it's easy for lawyers to make arguments on all sides, so it goes on and on and on."
Continued pressure by municipalities, coupled with citizen suits, may also exact concessions, says Thomas Hall, who heads the land use department at Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross in Newark.
Hall represented Princeton Airport in a suit by Montgomery Township in the 1990s over a runway extension project. The township settled in exchange for accommodations, such as creation of a board to hear disputes between the airport and neighbors.
Eminent domain is another weapon in township arsenals. "Talk about the shotgun behind the door; that's the big one," says Hall.
Newton Airport's attorney, Edward Broderick Jr., of Morristown's Broderick, Newmark & Grather, says the long-running litigation has forced his clients to put the property on the market, which means it might be developed into another use.
The prospect of lengthy litigation at Somerset Airport is a concern for both the airport owner and local residents. Harwick, who is handling the case pro bono, admits the case has been time-consuming and expensive. Mennen, the airport lawyer, says the litigation has strapped the resources of his client, to whom the state pays rent of about $2,500 a month for accommodating Northstar.
And the litigation has served to scale down the ambitions of the airport owner, who previously abandoned plans to construct a large new hangar and support building to accommodate Northstar. Some residents have publicly suspected that Somerset Airport wants to expand to allow jets to land there, although Mennen says its runway is far too short for jets and the owner doesn't own enough land for a significant extension.
Still, Hall says the renovations proposed to accommodate Northstar at Somerset Airport have a good chance in court. "One would think anything reasonably necessary to accommodate the aviation mission would be permitted, so long as it doesn't create a health, safety and welfare problem," says Hall.
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