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Somerset Air Service Inc. v. Township of Bedminster

2006 WL 861498 (N.J. Super Law. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

ZONING; AIRPORTS; HELICOPTERS—A zoning ordinance that prohibited the operation of helicopters at an airport would be void as violative of state statutes and distinguishing between the operation of helicopters and a medevac service is a distinction without merit.

The State of New Jersey licensed an airport to operate in the municipality. A medical evacuation (medevac) helicopter company operated out of the airport for which the municipality had issued a special use permit. Prior to the expiration of the special use permit, the municipality renewed the permit for nine months with the condition that no further renewals, extensions or re-applications would be considered absent final approval for construction of a permanent medevac hangar. The airport filed an application with the planning board, seeking either a waiver to permit interior renovations to an existing building, or in the alternative, approval of the submitted site plan so as to allow the same interior renovations. The planning board concluded the application was incomplete, and advised the airport to submit an environmental impact statement.

Thereafter, the municipal engineer official wrote to the airport indicating that the use of the airport by the medevac company was not a specifically permitted use nor a customary secondary use. The municipal zoning officer then wrote to the airport requesting removal of the medevac company within fifteen days unless all necessary approvals were obtained. The airport applied for, and the Court issued, a temporary restraining order preventing the municipality from taking any further action against the airport or the medevac company. On the return of an Order to Show Cause, the airport sought final restraints against the municipality. The municipality opposed the motion by arguing that the airport failed to exhaust its administrative remedies, and sought a declaration that the interpretation of the municipal ordinance by its subcode officials was correct.

The Court held that the municipal zoning officer and the municipal engineer could not have properly interpreted the municipal ordinance because any municipal zoning ordinance prohibiting the operation of helicopters would be inoperative as against the state statute. The Court held that the statute considered all aeronautical activities as “permitted uses” for land use and zoning purposes, and that the statute prohibited municipalities from designating an airport as a non-conforming use. According to the Court, the use of helicopters at a public use airport was clearly contemplated and approved by the legislature as a permitted use. Therefore, the rulings of the municipal engineer and zoning officer were invalid.

When reviewing a site plan for alterations to improve support services for a medevac company, the correct focus is whether the airport’s plans to accommodate the medevac company conform with municipal ordinances, not whether the use of helicopters is a permitted use. Distinguishing between a helicopter and a medevac operation is a distinction without merit. The airport’s proposed renovations to the hangar were accessory to helicopter use, whether or not the helicopters are used for medevac purposes. Therefore, the matter was remanded to the municipality’s planning board for consideration of the site plan approval application, consistent with the Court’s rulings.


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