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Bedminster Branchburg Bridgewater Concerned Citizens Coalition, Inc. v. Bedminster Twsp. Bd. of Adj.

SOM-L-1415-05 (N.J. Super. Law Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

ZONING; AIRPORTS — State aviation law does not altogether preclude the exercise of certain municipal zoning functions in aviation cases, but where there is a conflict between municipal zoning regulations and a decision of the Department of Transportation, the inconsistent municipal zoning regulation will be inoperative.

An airport was owned by a private air services company. The airport was licensed by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) as a public use airport under the provisions of the Aviation Act.

An issue was raised as to whether the municipality’s land development ordinance restricted airport usage to “fixed wing” aircraft, thereby excluding helicopters. Thereafter, the air services company applied to the municipal board of adjustment for an interpretation of the ordinance in accordance with relevant statutory law. The board conducted public hearings and determined that the use of the airport by helicopters was permitted under the ordinance.

A coalition of concerned citizens challenged the board’s interpretation of the ordinance, and sought declaratory judgment that the use of the airport by helicopters was not permitted. The air services company moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. It argued that the state had exclusive authority over aeronautical activities and facilities, and that a municipality’s jurisdiction was limited to assisting in enforcement of state law regarding aeronautics.

Under the relevant provision of the Aviation Act, governance of operations at state airports is specifically delegated to the commissioner of the DOT. The Aviation Act defined “aircraft” and “airport.” Further, the Act mandated enforcement of all laws enacted by the state pertaining to aeronautics, and rendered any municipal enactment inconsistent with the Act void. Thus, the air services company argued that since a municipality may not enact a zoning ordinance in conflict with the Act, a municipality’s decision may not interfere with the commissioner’s enforcement of the Aviation Act.

Reviewing precedent on the issue of conflicts between local zoning law and the state’s authority over aviation, the Court explained that state law does not altogether preclude the exercise of certain municipal zoning functions in aviation cases. However, where there is a conflict between municipal zoning regulations and a decision of the commissioner, the inconsistent municipal zoning regulation would be inoperative. Thus, the Court concluded that once an airport is established, municipal regulation does not include the authority to ban helicopters. It held that the exemption under state law precluded the municipality from prohibiting helicopter operations at the airport because such a prohibition would be at variance with state policy regarding aeronautics.

Furthermore, the air services company argued that even accepting that coalition’s allegation that the interpretation of the ordinance by the board was contrary to the plain, clear, and unambiguous language of that ordinance, the coalition failed to state a claim. On the other hand, the coalition argued that there was no conflict between the ordinance and the state law; thus, there was no preemption issue to decide. Considering the parties’ arguments, the Court reviewed the principles of preemption. The three categories of preemption are: (1) express preemption; (2) implied preemption; and (3) conflict preemption. Determining that express preemption was not implicated, the Court explained that there are three types of implied preemption: (1) field preemption, where the scheme of state law is so pervasive that the legislature has left no room for an inferior governmental unit to supplement it; (2) conflict preemption, where there is a conflict between the state laws and the resolutions or ordinances of superior/inferior governmental units, rendering compliance with both laws impossible; and (3) obstacle preemption, where the law of the inferior governmental unit impairs achievement of the objective and purpose of the law of the superior governmental unit. The coalition argued that preemption was, at worst, obstacle preemption. Accordingly, it argued that legitimate local concerns which must be addressed as a matter of due process. In light of those arguments, the Court acknowledged that a legitimate important local interest could not be bypassed.

Nonetheless, the Court concluded that there was no need for the board to decide whether use of the airport by helicopters was a permitted use under the ordinance because the board could not have interpreted the ordinance as prohibiting helicopters. The Court reasoned that the board’s decision was entirely consistent with the applicable law and, therefore, the coalition had no basis to challenge that decision. Furthermore, even if the board’s decision was reviewed, the decision was presumptively valid. A determination by a board of adjustment will be set aside only if a court is satisfied that a board’s decision was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Here, the Court found that the board’s decision was reasonable and consistent with applicable law. Accordingly, the Court granted the air services company’s motion to dismiss the coalition’s complaint.

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