Solberg showdown slated for December: Bridgewater NJ Courier-News, 9/11/07

Judge to hear eminent domain arguments after extended discovery

By Brandon Lausch

After another minor extension to allow for more evidence gathering, the judge presiding over Readington's eminent domain suit against Solberg-Hunterdon Airport likely will see both sides in state Superior Court in mid-December, according to officials.

Though an extended deadline for the pretrial evidence gathering process known as discovery arrived Aug. 31, attorneys will have through the end of this month to finish remaining depositions or other outstanding matters, officials said Monday.

Township counsel James Rhatican said vacation schedules were partly to blame for the delay. Solberg attorney Laurence Orloff did not return a message Monday.

Once all their court documents are compiled, attorneys for both sides will have the chance to file motions for summary judgment that are returnable in open court Dec. 14, according to the case's presiding judge, Yolanda Ciccone. Ciccone, who sits in Somerville, met with the attorneys Monday morning in a private case management conference to schedule the upcoming motions.

During the December court date, both sides likely will attempt to end the litigation by again explaining before the judge why she should support their batch of evidence and issue a ruling in their favor.

After hearing arguments last November, Ciccone said an initial four-month discovery period was "needed to allow the court to make an accurate determination regarding the legality" of Readington's proposed taking of the 625 acres of open space surrounding the general-aviation airport, as well as its development rights.

Ciccone then allowed discovery to continue through June, until she granted another two-month extension through August and another to the end of this month. In Ciccone's decision, she said Readington argues the purpose of its eminent domain suit is to preserve the open space surrounding the airport and to protect natural resources.

"As such, this, if taken at face value, would certainly entitle Readington to proceed with this taking without further analysis," Ciccone wrote at the time.

But the judge said other "pressing considerations" in the case needed to be explored, including "whether Readington's true motivation is the preservation of open space or if there is an ulterior motive for the proposed taking." The Solbergs have argued Readington wants to destroy the airport economically.

With the help of evidence gathered during the past year, attorneys surely will echo those arguments in December in a push to end the legal wrangling. Ciccone said she likely will issue a written opinion either accepting one of the arguments or rejecting both.

If the motions are denied, Rhatican said the judge then would hold a hearing in which she would hear arguments about Readington's legal right to take the property.

If Ciccone sides with the township and Readington's case continues, the value of the property would be determined by a team of court-appointed commissioners.

Readington has deposited $21.7 million in state Superior Court for the rights to the airport and its land. The filing, called a declaration of taking, transfers technical ownership of the airport's land and commits the township to the acquisition, even if the final cost exceeds the deposited amount. Ciccone has stayed the declaration, however, until she determines if the eminent domain action is legal.

Voters approved a bond referendum in May 2006 authorizing township officials to use up to $22 million to acquire the airport. But because the commissioners or a jury could put a higher purchase price on the land, a group known as the Taxpayers' Alliance of Readington sued the township to limit acquisition costs or to have a judge dismiss the township's case. A final decision on the group's suit is pending.

Bridgewater NJ Courier-News: http://www.c-n.com