CFR recently reported Thor Solberg's testimony under oath that he still intends to expand the airport. This article prompted many questions from residents: The airport hasn't changed, why should it now? Where would the Solbergs get the money to expand? Is there even a market for a jetport here? Can Readington zoning control expansion?
The Solbergs have a huge incentive. They can use Federal funds to expand the airport and increase its value by tens of millions of dollars - money they could pocket if they sold the airport. Expert studies presented in court confirm there is a big demand for a jetport here. Unfortunately, the Township cannot control expansion through zoning. The Township's litigation is currently blocking expansion, but that could all change if a pro-airport faction gains control of the Township Committee
February 11, 2015
The Financial Incentive: The Solbergs Stand to Make Millions
The Solbergs are eligible for tens of millions of dollars in Federal grants. The Airport Improvement Program (AIP) allows privately owned airports to receive publicly funded grants to fund expansions. Thus, the Solbergs could expand their airport at taxpayer expense. It’s easy to see why the Solberg’s have refused $22 million to preserve the airport at its current size when they know that expansion could double the value of their property. If they then sell the larger airport they pocket all that money.
The Solberg’s did attempt to sell their 726 acre airport to the DOT in 2002, but the DOT gave up on negotiations in November, 2004 after the Solbergs insisted on more than twice the State’s appraised value of $18 million.
Expansion would raise the value of the Solbergs’ land, while negatively impacting the value of most homes in Readington.
Why Haven’t They Expanded Already?
Despite their public assurances that Solberg Airport is just a ‘small family business’, the sobering truth is that the Solberg family has a long history of trying to expand Solberg Airport into a jetport. By Thor’s admission during his testimony in court in January, expansion plans are currently being blocked by the Township’s present litigation. If it is successful, the Township will acquire and preserve the 625 acres of open space surrounding the 101 acres that includes the airport buildings and runways. The 101 acre airport would remain in the hands of the Solbergs. This preservation would permanently restrict the future growth of the airport.
The Solbergs have won two of the five seats on the Township Committee. If they win one more seat this year, they have the majority and will be in a position to drop the litigation and refuse to appeal, thus clearing the way for expansion.
Can Zoning Block Expansion?
No. Absolutely, not. The FAA and DOT, not the township have jurisdiction over the expansion of airports. In 2000, the DOT provided $350,000 for an environmental assessment of a conditionally approved expansion plan. This expansion process was interrupted by the DOT’s efforts to buy Solberg Airport in the years between 2002 and 2004. The fact that the entire property was zoned for Rural Residential use was not even considered.
Furthermore, zoning can be changed. The Solberg’s have sued Readington to zone the entire 726 acres of Solberg land for airport use. A pro-airport Township Committee, could appoint a pro-airport Planning Board and comply with the Solbergs’ demands, sending a strong signal to the FAA that Readington was ready for a huge jetport in its midst.
Is There a Market for a Jetport in Readington?
Yes. Solberg Airport sits on the edge of the one of the busiest air spaces in the world, an hour from New York City, not far from dozens of Fortune 100 companies, and right next door to communities with some of the priciest private homes in the nation. Executives and wealthy travelers would jet into Readington to avoid the security lines at Newark International Airport and the congestion around Teterboro Airport. Such use would also come with increased helicopter traffic taking travelers to their final destination.
During the trial, the Solbergs presented expert witnesses and reports confirming that a jetport in Readington would be busy and make money. Read the report from the Solberg's expert witness.
Who Would Actually Expand the Airport?
The three Solberg partners are aging and have recently been embroiled in family litigation. This spring, Superior Court Judge Coleman ordered their partnership dissolved and the assets to be “partitioned”. It is very possible that these actions will necessitate a sale of the airport. If this happens, Readington Township could be faced with a new fight against airport expansion with a much more savvy, connected, and well-funded adversary.
A large conglomerate of business interests have recently purchased a privately owned airport in Wall Township and converted it to Monmouth Jet Center at Monmouth Executive. They have already begun the conversion of 700+ acre property for corporate jet traffic. That same conglomerate has a keen interest in events surrounding Solberg.
Would the Solbergs Sell the Land for a Housing Development?
Though possible, it’s unlikely. The Solberg’s have refused $22 million for the preservation of the land surrounding the 101 acre airport, even though this purchase would allow them to keep, operate and to do essential improvements to their existing airport. In today’s market, it is likely that an offer from Toll Brothers for residential purposes would be less than half that amount.