READINGTON — Items come and go on municipal agendas. But not Solberg Airport lands and litigation.
“For about eight years, or more, we’ve put that on the agenda every meeting,” Mayor Julia Allen said. “It doesn’t mean that something’s happening. The majority of times there’s nothing that we even discuss.
“There’s a process that’s unfolding. In recent years it’s been unfolding very slowly, which isn’t unusual for court cases,” the mayor said.
The process is driven, in part, by a $22 million bond ordinance that voters approved in 2006. The approval essentially requires the township to either acquire 625 open acres surrounding the airport and the development rights to about 100 acres used for airport operations, or to negotiate a settlement with the airport owners.
This year the township is budgeting $275,000 for legal expenses for the Solberg case and routine business before the Township Committee, Planning Board and other local government bodies.
When asked how much the township has spent on Solberg litigation, various employees and elected officials either say they don’t know, or have given the figure as roughly $1 million. The township’s chief financial officer referred questions about the costs to the township administrator. The mayor said she didn’t know.
Don Baldwin, a longtime township resident opposed to the ongoing legal battle, said this week that the “total cost is hard to pin down and also, since the case is still going, it’s a moving target. In addition to using a number of law firms over the years, Readington has paid dozens of expensive consultants to fortify their justifications for the eminent domain abuse.”
The airport’s owners — who host the popular QuickChek N.J. Festival of Ballooning — have long been embroiled in a dispute with the township over their land.
The township currently seeks to buy development rights to the “safety zone” surrounding the airport “facilities area,” as well as land beyond the “safety zone.” There would be “no taking whatsoever on the 102-acre airport facilities area,” said Allen, the land under the “airport proper and some land around that.”
That site holds the hangers and two runways.
The Solbergs have long contended that Readington officials are trying to block any expansion of the airport, using preservation of open space as a pretext toward that end.
Allen called the Solberg family holdings surrounding the airport a “significant open space area” and “part of of our Master Plan” preservation goals.
“The township has been implementing its goals and policies for decades, really,” said Allen.
She said that Readington’s voters were the first in the state to approve a referendum, in 1978, to dedicate money for open space preservation. That was for $1 million and a year later, she said the township starting planning to preserve land.
Now 28% of its 48 square miles of land are deed restricted against development or in parkland, with more land in the process. “That’s quite a feat with a 48-square-mile township,” she said, particularly considering Readington’s location, on the boundary with Somerset County on two sides and the Route 78/22 and Route 202 corridors.
“Readington has remained a part of the Hunterdon County we know and love,” Allen said. “We easily could have gone” in the direction of some more suburbanized adjoining townships.
Baldwin, one of the mayor’s neighbors, said, “I grew up on a farm, no one has to sell me on open space.” But he objects to the concept of condemning land to obtain open space — on principle and because of the cost incurred by taxpayers for legal and other professional fees.
Baldwin also said, “I don’t know that government should be controlling 28% of the land” in a municipality.
The mayor, a longtime open space advocate, said. “There was an absolute economic consideration to preserve more land and build fewer schools.”
The township has taken different approaches to Solberg. For more than a year it has sought development rights on about 415 acres in the “Airport Safety Zone” surrounding the 102-acre, L-shaped facilities area, Allen explained, in addition to buying 210 acres of open space beyond the airport “safety zone.”
Baldwin said that the Solberg property is “probably the biggest open tract remaining in eastern Hunterdon County,” but added, “The Solberg family has preserved it as open space, and the safety zone mandates” that the bulk of the property “remains open. And it’s not costing the taxpayers anything,” absent the township’s suits.
In a court decision last year, the township was ordered to pay some legal fees incurred by the Solbergs, relating to its abandonment of the original condemnation zone, which has included the airport facilities area.
Allen said that “most” visitors to the Festival of Ballooning park on the land where the township wants to purchase an easement that would restrict the use to conservation and passive recreation.
“The definition is recreation that doesn’t alter the land,” she said, which wouldn’t preclude festival parking because the area isn’t covered with impervious materials.
Baldwin, a business executive, said that his objections have been discounted previously because he is also a pilot who flies himself to suppliers and customers in nearby states and on pleasure trips.
He said that it gives him a better understanding of regulations, such as building restrictions in airport safety zones, and has made him “casual friends” with the Solbergs. But, he said, he flies out of a Somerset County airport, not Solberg, and has no desire to see Solberg “become a JFK” airport.
He said he got involved as a citizen objector because he “thought some rights were pretty much getting trampled in the mud on a phony pretense” — open space preservation — and because “eminent domain was always highly restricted in how and why it was used. Readington is being rather creative.”