The township has hired GRA, Inc. and will pay it up to $5,000 for economic “counsel” as it continues to try to buy the development rights to Solberg Airport and other family lands outright.
GRA, based in Jenkintown, Pa., was hired without competitive bids. Its contract with the township is effective for one year, through Oct. 23, 2014.
The company calls itself “economic counsel to the transportation industry,” but works fully on “air transport economics.”
It says it had “extensive” experience in “economic, investment and financial analyses, business and activity forecasting, benefit-cost analysis, cost and operation modeling, regulatory impact analysis and safety and environmental studies.”
Since the Township Committee awarded the contract to GRA a public hearing was held on an ordinance to allow the township to buy the airport and convert it to a public operation.
That hearing on Nov. 6 drew about 500 people and over the course of more than four hours a number of people, none of who supported the idea, spoke. The Township Committee then adopted the ordinance by a 4-1 vote, with Committeeman Frank Gatti dissenting.
On Nov. 7, notice arrived that the township had lost another round in court. Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone ruled against the township in its efforts to amend a suit to include purchase of the airport, not just the development rights.
Ciccone further lifted a stay on a suit filed by the Solbergs in 2006 against the then-members of the Township Committee, saying that Readington officials have failed to comply with state law and zone for an airport safety zone and re-zone the existing airport to a conforming use.
Mayor Julia Allen today, Nov. 11, said that the Township Committee hired GRA because, “We thought that their expertise might be helpful. We may not even use them. They’re there and clearly have an understanding of this issue in depth.”
She said that GRA can help the township to make an “informed decision.”
However, she said, township officials meant it when they told the crowd at the public hearing that they would try to negotiate a settlement with the Solberg family.
“We are sincere in attempting to find an acceptable solution to all parties,” Allen said. “We listened carefully to the comments … we’re reviewing those suggestions, anything that comes under the heading of resolving this.”
A number of people who spoke at the public hearing on Nov. 6 voiced opposition to the concept of eminent domain in this case. Joe Costa said that he was representing the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, including 50 people who fly out of Solberg.
He called eminent domain’s application here “disgusting” and called the “waste of scarce taxpayers’ dollars … quite troubling.”
One older resident spoke about his family’s history and concluded with, “This is no Russia.”
Resident Don Baldwin said that “taking land already in open space, and probably spending $30 million to make it open space, makes no sense at all.”
He accused officials of betraying “the trust of the taxpayers” and spending their money “to harass a family for 20 years.”
Attorney and balloon pilot Wayne Fox, of Belle Mead, said that he would be “happy to donate my time to help.”
He suggested that the township negotiate a “right of first refusal” should the Solbergs decide to sell any of their holdings. Then, he said, the township could “match whatever some developer would pay.”
However, Fox said, the Solbergs have run the airport “for many, many years” and predicted they will “run it long after you are gone.”
Readington Township resident Guliet Hirsch is an attorney specializing in land use. Instead of spending money on litigation, she suggested that the township promote the small, general aviation airport and its history.
For instance, she said, it was founded by aviation pioneer Thor Solberg and was a training site for World War II pilots.
Hirsch told the committee, “If you are going to act like business owners … look at the cost” of each facet of purchase, operation, maintenance and repair, in addition to lost property taxes should the lands become public.
The crowd laughed when resident John Witt said that, at age 15, he’s not a voter, nor does he pay taxes but, “I have been following this dispute since I’ve been living.”
He felt that officials weren’t being honest when they said that a purchase would protect the township from airport expansion. “You did that pretty well by building Holland Brook School” on the edge of the airport safety zone. School property is within that zone.
He pointed out that state officials at the time recommended against using that site for a township school.
On the subject of the cost of litigation through the years, a number the township says it can’t accurately supply because of document retention policies, attorney Bill McGrath said that he’s been in private practice more than 25 years and, given two days’ time, could supply a client of 15 years ago copies of bills.
“If you really want to cooperate on this issue,” he suggested that the township ask its attorney for the Solberg litigation to do the same.
He called the township’s decision to continue its pursuit of Solberg land and/or development rights “almost as if you’ve lost the war and insist on continuing to go into battle.”
Bob Schoenfeld said he is “sickened by the amount of money being spent,” and suggested that the township wait two years to have the “pick” of the Merck world headquarters campus buildings when the pharmaceutical company moves to Kenilworth.
Readington resident Elaine Harvin directed her first comment to Solberg family members at the hearing. “As a taxpayer, I am sorry for what this town is putting you through,” she said.
Then she spoke to her elected officials. “I ask you, politely as a Readington taxpayer, please stop this … I don’t want my money spent to take that land away. Please stop the madness.”
The mayor and Township Committee plan to meet behind closed doors to discuss Solberg Airport family lands on Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 8 a.m. at the Municipal Building.
If they take any action, that would happen in open session. Allen said today that she doesn’t expect that any will be taken that morning.
Barring further amendments, or a resolution, the case could go to trial in March.