N.J. township tries land grab of Solberg Airport

 - October 8, 2007, 6:26 AM

Readington Township in New Jersey is pursuing a novel method of claiming a local, privately owned airport. If the town fathers should succeed, thousands of privately owned airports throughout the U.S., including much needed relievers, could be in jeopardy.

Readington Township has introduced an ordinance that would enable it to condemn Solberg Airport under eminent domain and take it away from its owners, the Solberg family, who have owned and operated the facility for more than 60 years. The Solbergs have stated that they wish to continue to operate the airport, which is an FAA-designated reliever, and do not want to part with it. This ordinance could allow the township to acquire the airport regardless of whether or not the Solbergs want to sell it.

Solberg Airport occupies only a small part of the 726-acre property–most of which is farmland. The five-member township committee voted unanimously in favor of the condemnation ordinance. At a public hearing on September 25, attended by a crowd estimated to be in excess of 500, more than 60 people made statements, which were limited to two minutes. Those who spoke opposed the condemnation by a count of more than two to one.

 Paul Sauerland Jr., a member of the Hunterdon County board of chosen freeholders, told the committee that his board had earlier in the day passed a resolution opposed to large-scale condemnation of private properties. The airport, he said, is a valuable transportation resource for the region. “The exercise of the power of eminent domain must be used only for public purpose,” he said. “As a resident, I think this is a travesty.”

Those in favor of condemning the property pointed out repeatedly that they were opposed to airport expansion and were concerned with safety issues. A public school was built off the end of one runway within the last couple of years, despite a warning from the New Jersey Department of Transportation that this was not an appropriate place to put a school.

The current owners of the airport are the three children of airport founder Thor Solberg, a pioneer aviator who made the first flight from the U.S. to his native Norway in 1935. His three children are Thor Jr., a United Airlines 777 captain; Suzanne Solberg Nagle; and Lorraine Solberg.

Addressing the public meeting, Nagle said, “I feel like I’m standing on a chair with a noose around my neck. After 60 years we should be able to own and operate this airport.”

Solberg Jr., addressing the mayor, Ron Monaco, said, “There is a lot of pain on both sides. We need to be talking to each other without the word condemnation before us.” A number of Readington residents expressed outrage at the fact that the town had spent a vast sum of taxpayer money, estimated at anywhere from $1 million to $10 million, in fighting the Solberg family.

The Solbergs’ attorney, John McNamara, said that the money spent was only a fraction of what would be required if the condemnation were approved. In addition to the cost of the property, he said, the town would have to pay for improvements to the facility, maintenance, salaries and many other expenses, and at the same time they would lose a rateable property. He suggested they take the word condemnation out of the proceedings and negotiate in good conscience with the Solbergs.

One speaker told of a condemnation case involving Wings Field outside of Philadelphia that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down efforts to condemn that airport.

At the end of the evening, the township committee voted unanimously to adopt the condemnation ordinance. The township must now get an appraisal and make an offer to the Solbergs and then wait 14 days before going to court to get a declaration of takeover.

Although Mayor Monaco said that the town had not yet heard from the appraiser, the Solbergs believe the town has received an appraisal that is far below fair market value. The Solbergs would have a right to appeal that and get an appraisal of their own. They have, however, declared many times over that the airport is not for sale. If the township proceeded with the condemnation, it would have to initiate a bond ordinance to raise the money to buy the property.

The airport has one paved 3,000-ft runway and two turf runways–one 3,440 ft long and a second that is 2,356 ft long. The Solbergs want to stretch the paved runway to 4,300 ft and pave the 3,440-ft turf runway. The township is opposed to such plans, claiming it would cause more noise and pollution.

Readington Township said it would keep the property as an airport and probably lease it to an operator. But the Solbergs claim that the airport is being run competently and they pay taxes to the township, which would be lost if the local government takes over the airport.