Solbergs - Measure violates court order: Bridgewater NJ Courier-News, 07/26/07

Airport owners sue Readington over recent ordinance

By Brandon Lausch

The recent ordinance establishing a Solberg-Hunterdon Air Safety and Historic Airport District is a "blatant effort" by Readington officials to circumvent current court orders and press forward with an alternative plan to condemn the general-aviation airport if the township's pending eminent domain action fails, according to a lawsuit filed by the airport.

In the lawsuit, filed July 19 in state Superior Court, Solberg Aviation Co. contends the ordinance - adopted by the Township Committee last month - claims to bring Readington into compliance with the 1983 state Air Safety and Zoning Act.

But it "instead comprises a further extension of Readington's long-term efforts to constrain the use and operation of the airport and, together with its companion action - the eminent-domain proceeding - to reduce the current and future size and scope of the airport property, and the operations thereon in such a manner as in all probability to ultimately destroy the airport as a viable operation," the suit states.

Mayor Gerard Shamey said Wednesday he is "insulted" the Solbergs would argue the overlay zone is an effort to wipe out the airport.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Shamey said, emphasizing development incentives included in the ordinance that provide for an airport museum, "historic design" projects and limited hangar expansion.

"We're trying to assist the Solbergs in continued viability of the airport," he said.

Township officials have said the ordinance complies with both the letter and the spirit of the 1983 act, which authorized municipalities to designate airport-safety zones, regulate land uses within those zones and govern development in and around public airports.

But the lawsuit counters that Readington has deliberately refused to comply with the act for two decades.

"The 700-plus acres of property upon which Solberg Airport operates is not currently zoned by Readington for airport use, and therefore Readington is and has been out of compliance for over 20 years," the suit states.

Following a successful $22 million bond referendum in May 2006, township officials offered the Solberg family $21.7 million for the development rights to the 102-acre airport and the 625 acres of land surrounding the facility.

When the airport's three sibling co-owners did not accept, Readington filed an eminent-domain suit, claiming the legal action was necessary to preserve open space.

The state Superior Court judge presiding over the case has extended the pretrial evidence gathering process known as discovery until the end of August, nearly a year after attorneys first presented oral arguments.

The judge has said the additional time was needed to determine "whether Readington's true motivation is the preservation of open space or if there is an ulterior motive for the proposed taking."

In the lawsuit, the Solberg family's lawyer, Laurence Orloff, argues the ordinance "expressly 'presumes' that Solberg Airport only consists of the 100+ acres shown on that map and that the attempted taking by eminent domain was proper."

Claiming the overlay zone is "arbitrary and unreasonable" and that Readington "exceeded the scope of its authority," the Solbergs argue the ordinance constitutes an unlawful taking of the airport's property. The lawsuit requests a judge to void the ordinance.

Township counsel James Rhatican, who is representing Readington in the pending eminent-domain suit, called the Solbergs' claims "frivolous" when Rhatican was read portions of the lawsuit.

Although Rhatican said he had not reviewed the suit, he said Readington's right to create ordinances and its power to utilize eminent domain are independent of each other.

"Related, yes," Rhatican said. "But independent."

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