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March 13, 2015
Solberg Airport is a public-use general aviation airport located in the midst of about 726 acres of open space near the historic village of Readington. The Solberg family has owned and operated the airport since 1939 and are proud of its history. Residents are happy with the airport as it exists today, and enjoy community events like the NJ Festival of Ballooning.
Researching Solberg Airport in newspaper archives, however, explains why controversy over the airport has existed and dates back over 45 years. In the late 1960’s, the Solberg property was chosen as the site of the 4th commercial jetport for the NY metropolitan area. The NY-NJ Port Authority chose Solberg because the property is larger in land mass than La Guardia, has favorable topography, and is located on the edge of the nation’s busiest airspace. An epic battle followed. Residents descended on Trenton in numbers so great that the Governor, standing on the steps of the capital ready to announce the approval of the new Jetport was so moved by the size of the crowd, he quietly put his speech back in his pocket and joined the peoples’ fight.
The fear of airport expansion was often on residents’ minds in the decades that followed. In 1990, the State DOT announced that Solberg was designated a reliever airport for Newark. Residents again became concerned. Host municipalities have little to say about the approval of the expansion or operation of an airport. When the airport owner pursues an expansion, approval is given by the FAA and the State Department of Transportation, not the municipality. Federal law gives the FAA pre-eminent jurisdiction over the operation of airports, and the courts have consistently ruled against local governments attempting to regulate the operation of airports through noise laws or similar ordinances.
In 1997, Solberg Aviation unveiled a Master Plan for the expansion of their airport into a jetport similar to Morristown Airport. There was again a public outcry and the DOT agreed to shorten the proposed runway length from over a mile long down to 4,890 feet. This runway is still large enough to handle mid-size corporate jets. In 2000-2001, DOT conducted an Environmental Assessment of this modified expansion plan. Public hearings were held which attracted huge crowds and residents spoke passionately against the proposed expansion. At this point, the township began to consider the acquisition of the 726 acre property, to control the airport and to preserve the open space surrounding the airport. Much to Readington’s surprise, on April 11, 2002, the Commissioner of Transportation announced that the State was under contract to buy the 726 acre property from Solberg Aviation for $22 million. The township backed away but in 2004 the State announced that it had abandoned its efforts to buy the airport.
By 2005, the Township was very mindful that expansion of Solberg Airport and development of its surrounding open lands could threaten the Township’s rural quality of life. In early 2006, the Township discussed a plan that would allow the Solberg Family to retain ownership of the airport itself, but the township would buy and preserve the surrounding open space.
In May of 2006, a special referendum was held. Township voters were asked to approve the acquisition of 625 acres of open space lands surrounding the 101 acre airport facilities area for $21.7 million. This plan would allow the airport to continue to function as a small general aviation airport but prevent expansion into a busy regional business jetport. A new debate ensued, meetings were held and the public spoke passionately for and against the use of eminent domain. Those in favor argued that jet noise overhead would lower property values for all residents and result in a “reverse condemnation”. When the results were tallied, the measure was approved by a 56 % majority, with 61% of registered voters participating.
Since 2006, the Township Committee has moved forward with acquisition. The Solberg’s have challenged the action in court. In 2007, Judge Ciccone ruled in Readington’s favor by Summary Judgment (no trial). Solberg Aviation appealed the decision, and the appeals court ruled in 2009 that the case must be heard in court. The matter finally went to trial in 2014 before Superior Court Judge Armstrong. No matter what the outcome, both sides have the right to appeal.