New Jersey steps in to save Solberg Airport from closure

 - May 16, 2008, 11:37 AM

The long and bitter battle over the fate of Solberg Airport in Readington, N.J., may finally be over. Readington Township officials had been proceeding for several years with steps to take the property away from the Solberg family, which has owned it for more than 60 years, under the right of eminent domain. Furious controversy has raged over that action.

Groups have been organized on both sides and a lawsuit is still pending on the part of one pro-airport group, COST (Citizens Opposed to Shameful Taking/Soaring Taxes).
The group filed a suit against the township in the state Superior Court last fall alleging numerous violations of the law, including a violation of first amendment rights. At one public meeting last fall the township committee denied a pro-airport advocate the right to speak.

The fracas came to an end with a surprise announcement that the state would buy the 745-acre property for a minimum of $22 million. Negotiations had been ongoing since last August, but Readington Township officials were unaware of them and the announcement caught the township completely by surprise. The agreement erases Readington’s efforts to take the property under eminent domain. It has been reported that the town spent more than a million dollars in taxpayer money in its efforts to take over the property.

There are many unanswered questions tied to the agreement, however. First, the federal government (the FAA) would pay 90 percent of the purchase price and the state would pay 10 percent. Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman, said the airfield is eligible for federal funding, but the agency has until Dec. 31, 2003, to make a decision. The FAA cannot make any commitments until a final price is agreed upon.

Since no federal funding has ever been sought by the Solberg family, the FAA is not involved in requiring its safety standards to be met. If the sale to the state is consummated and federal funds are used, the airport would then have to comply with FAA standards.

The second question is price. While $22 million is the announced price, the Solberg family has obtained an appraisal that values the property at $40 million. The township had its own appraisal done and came up with $9 million.

Because the disparity is so great, the Solberg family was ordered by the state to get a second appraisal. The family has six months to submit that appraisal, and once that is done negotiations on the final sales price could begin. However, it has been agreed by the state that the price will not be less than $22 million.

There is no commitment for improvements under the agreement. However, Ted Matthews, director of New Jersey’s Division of Aeronautics, said a number of safety improvements would be undertaken by the state if it acquires the property. The main runway (4-22) would be relocated and would be wider than the current runway. The existing runway would be used as a taxiway. Some 3,000 ft of that runway is actually paved, while the rest is unpaved overrun.

Other safety improvements which the state will make include moving aircraft parking areas further from the runway and increasing the separation between the taxiway and the runway. The plan calls for aircraft to be parked on the opposite side of the runway from the current tiedown area, according to Suzy Solberg Nagle, one of the airport owners.

There are also two turf strips, one is 3,440- by 200 ft and the other is 2,456- by 160 ft. The Solbergs, under a $21.5 million improvement plan, had hoped to pave the longer turf runway.

A few years ago the township built a school less than a mile from the end of the longer turf runway. Part of the land the school is built on is actually in the airport safety zone, where building is prohibited; however, no part of the school complex is on that portion of the land.

The Township of Readington is one of two communities in the state that has steadfastly refused to recognize the 1983 Safety and Zoning Law, which prohibits building in the safety zone that extends 3,000 ft from the end of a runway and 500 ft on each side in most cases. If the state purchase of the airport is consummated, AIP funds would be sought for the improvements and acceptance of those funds would require compliance with FAA safety standards.

The Solbergs had wanted to stretch the paved runway to 4,500 ft, but the town had been fighting that “expansion.” Although the township never admitted it, airport supporters alleged that the town’s efforts to take over the airport were inspired by the desire to stop “expansion,” an objective local legislators opposed vigorously. Their objection was based on the assumption that a longer runway would attract jets, which, in turn, they believe, would create intolerable noise and pollution. A local daily publication went so far as to print a letter stating that jets would dump fuel before landing, though few business aircraft are actually capable of dumping fuel.

Although great furor has been raised over the effects of jet operations, a CitationJet was based at the field for a couple of years and nobody in the area knew it. The agreement for the sale states that the main runway, 4-22, would not be longer than 3,745 ft.

Only a small portion of the 745 acres owned by the Solbergs is being used by the airport. The balance is being farmed, and the state has no plans to change that.

New Jersey aviation attorney Jack McNamara, a former president of the Lawyer-Pilots Bar Association, was the architect of the deal to have the state buy the airport. He worked closely with the state’s new Commissioner of Transportation, James Fox, who is aware of and concerned about the state’s steadily deteriorating general aviation airport system. New Jersey had more than 100 airports after World War II, and there are currently 49.

If and when the state takes over the airport, it would be put out for bid to select someone to manage the facility. The Solberg family has said it would be a bidder.

More than 100 aircraft are now based at Solberg, which has no T-hangars. The airport was founded in July 1941 by Thor Solberg Sr.