Is Monmouth County Trying to Hijack the Airport?

June 11, 2024

It has a runway longer than the one at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Bruce Springsteen, who lives nearby, has been known to fly in and out and has used its hangers as rehearsal space.

Big corporate jets share the tarmac with small Cessnas and helicopters.

And now, Monmouth County officials are apparently trying to get into the cockpit. They want to take over Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall Township and seem unwilling to take “no” for an answer.

In recent months, the county’s Board of Commissioners has been exploring condemnation proceedings with the aim of possibly taking the 746-acre facility, also known as Monmouth Jet Center, through eminent domain, according to county records.

No one has said why, or what that could ultimately cost. But the price could be far greater than the county might anticipate, experts say.

Alan Antaki, the president and majority stockholder of Wall Herald Corp., the owner of the airport, labeled the county’s efforts “bizarre and shocking,” which he claimed came out of the blue.

“We can’t get a straight answer,” he said, when asked why the country wanted the airport. “They never discussed it with me. They just blindsided us.”

But the idea has been under review by Monmouth apparently since last November and came to light during annual State of the County message in March when Thomas Arone, who heads the Board of Commissioners — the elected county-wide government board — put in on his wish list for one of his future goals.

Calling it “a little pet peeve of mine,” he complained that other counties have airports and Monmouth does not.

“For years, I’ve had a thought along with my commissioners that we have an airport here in Monmouth County and we decided as a unified board to engage in the possibility of Monmouth County owning that airport,” he said. “I just think that the county could run that airport with the right management there that would be more viable for the residents here at Monmouth County.”

Arnone would not make himself available for an interview. But in a statement, he said the county was committed to preserving the airport and having it continue to operate as an airport while protecting the property from future development.

“The airport, its facilities, and its surrounding properties are in a shocking state of disrepair, and we are confident that, under county control, it can be improved to provide a higher level of services and safety to those flying in and out of Monmouth County,” Arnone said.

The acquisition of the airport by the county is a story that has played out before, without success.

In 2001, then-owner Ed Brown — who built the place and carved out the runways back in 1938 using a rebuilt World War I tank borrowed from a local American Legion post to plow the first landing strip — entered into discussions with the county and with Wall Township to sell the property.

Then a haven for skydivers and the banner tow planes that hug the Jersey Shore during the summer, talk of a sale soon led to concerns that the county would turn the quiet general aviation airport into a commercial cargo or passenger service operation.

Still, in an interview with the Asbury Park Press, Brown, 85, said at the time he was committed to selling the airport to the county. “It’s been my life work, and it would break my heart if it was cut up and turned into condominiums,” he said. “I think if you put your life into something, it’s only normal to want it to continue.”

The deal collapsed after Brown’s death in 2006. Monmouth Executive Airport was later sold by his estate in 2013 to a group of investors who moved out the skydiving and banner-airplane tenants and sought to lure more business.

Last November, however, the issue of a takeover was back on the table. The commissioners unanimously approved a resolution expressing their desire to explore possible alternatives to preserve the airport. That resolution said private ownership of the airport had permitted “the operation, opening and closing of the airfield to be subject to the whim and fancy of an individual in the past,” referring to Brown.

The county authorized its special counsel to send a letter to the airport’s owners that it intended to enter the property “to perform such tests and studies as may be necessary” to make a preliminary assessment in preparation for possible condemnation.

Attorney Matthew P. Dolan of Meyner and Landis in Newark, who represents Antaki, said the circumstances of the efforts to acquire the airport through eminent domain were strange. It wasn’t as if the county needed the land for a new road or some construction project vital to the public.

“In this case, they want to come in and take over a privately operated business just to run the business itself,” he said.

Experts in eminent domain law said that could be problematic — and costly. Attorney Timothy P. Duggan of Stark & Stark in Hamilton noted that the courts in New Jersey have lowered the bar in arguing whether a taking of property provides a public benefit or public purchase. But if they do, he said the property owner can argue that the value of that land is not necessarily what it is being used for, but “the highest and best use of the property.”

So while a government entity might, say, seek to take a farm for a road project, the cost for doing so might not be the appraised value of the land based on its usage — in this case a farm. It would be what the farmer could sell it for, such as a development deal to build thousands of town houses.

That means whatever Monmouth Executive might be worth as an airport, it likely would be worth far more if sold off for development.

A spokesman for Antaki said there is always interest in developing undeveloped land anywhere in New Jersey and that even Wall Township approached the owner about building a hotel on his property. He refused.

If the county did take over the airport, it could also mean a big hit in Wall Township’s tax base, although Arnone in his State of the County address said they would “make sure that Wall Township loses no revenue to their taxpayers through this transition.”

Officials in Wall Township, meanwhile, say they have no problem with a county takeover. Mayor Kevin P. Orender said they did not initiate the matter and had litte information on the county’s intentions. But he remarked, “I don’t have a problem with it. It’s a mess inside. The guy ran it into the ground.”

His fear is that under private management, Monmouth Executive could eventually see a big increase in air traffic if package delivery services such as UPS or Amazon come in.

“Not many airports are privately owned anymore,” said Orender, who used to enjoy watching the skydivers and banner planes over the airport.

“I think it’s a long way off,” he said of a potential county takeover. “But in the long run its going to be better for the town.”

Arnone in his statement said the county has met with Antaki and toured the property to begin the process of assessing the airport’s condition and potential value to the county.

“We have retained nationally recognized experts to evaluate the next steps in the process,” the commissioner said. “The county is open to good-faith negotiations with the owner. Condemnation and eminent domain are, as always, a last resort. As this process progresses, we will continue to update our residents.”

Antaki insisted he is not selling.

“Commissioner Arnone is creating a straw man premise to justify his long-held desire to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to take a well-run, private airport out of the hands of its owner,” he said. “The airport is not in any danger. It does not need to be protected or preserved by Commissioner Arnone. The only threat to the airport are Mr. Arnone’s personal desires.”

He said the Monmouth official also has not cited any public need for the airport.

“He just wants it because three of the other 21 counties in New Jersey operate airports,” he said. “He sounds like a spoiled child who wants his parents to buy him an expensive, new bicycle because the kid next door got one for Christmas.”


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Ted Sherman may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @TedShermanSL.

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