By Jack Elliott
At least one of the raging controversies centered around general aviation airports in New Jersey appears to have simmered down a bit. That would be the dispute over Readington Township’s efforts to buy Solberg Airport, which its owners declared isn’t for sale.
The township introduced an ordinance calling for a $22 million bond issue to finance the purchase of the airport. Newspaper stories said that Readington Township was considering seizure of the 730-acre facility under eminent domain if the owners refused to sell. Mayor Frank Gatti denied that the issue was ever discussed by the township committee. The issue of eminent domain has been a hot one since the Supreme Court approved it in Connecticut.
Suzy Solberg-Nagle, one of the airport’s three owners, along with her brother, Thor, a retired United Airlines captain, and sister, Lorraine Solberg, responded to Gatti’s statement by saying, “If they’re not pursuing eminent domain, then why did they hire a condemnation lawyer?”
A meeting on the issue was held at the township municipal building to give the public a chance to be heard. Everyone who signed up to speak was given two minutes to make their statement.
The meeting room was filled to capacity, with people standing all around the perimeter of the room and sitting in the center aisle. An adjoining lobby was also packed to capacity. When no more people could be squeezed into the building, police turned citizens away.
When proceedings got underway, people in the lobby shouted that they couldn’t hear. The mayor said he would come back and repeat everything—five times—if necessary.
Citizens made their two-minute speeches, some for the bond issue and some against it. After an hour, the fire marshal shut down the meeting because of overcrowding. It was postponed until the following Monday, August 22, to be held in a school that could accommodate many more people.
At that meeting, Mayor Gatti, who had spearheaded the effort to acquire the airport, in order to preserve open space and prevent airport expansion, did an about-face. He proposed that the bond ordinance be withdrawn.
“After reflecting on the ordinance and comments last week, I believe we should take more time and the bond issue shouldn’t go forward,” he said. A motion to drop the bond ordinance was introduced and was passed unanimously to loud applause.
Thor Solberg said that a survey sponsored by the airport showed that 70 percent of the residents had a favorable impression of the airport; only 12 percent were unfavorable.
“We want to build on that high level of support,” he said.
In the public comment segment of the meeting, many residents said they liked the airport the way it is. Many said they liked the annual balloon festival held there, which attracts upwards of 100,000 people over a period of three days.
Suzy Solberg-Nagle said that in their conversation with Gatti, he seemed very interested in working something out.
“I hope we can get rid of all the negativity,” she said.
In the interest of reaching “common ground,” Gatti said a committee would be appointed to enter discussions with the Solbergs.