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NJ town’s efforts to buy Solberg airport creating turbulence

By Veronica Slaght
FOR THE STAR-LEDGER
large_SolbergReadington Township has spent more than $3 million since 2001 to gain control of about 700 acres of land surrounding and including Solberg Airport, documents show. The town wants to preserve the land as open space. But with little to show for the expense, some residents are saying: Enough. “It’s out of control,” resident Bill Lewis said of the spending and ongoing court battle. Township administrator Vita Mekovetz said the $3 million went toward negotiations with the Solbergs, a bond ordinance, condemnation proceedings, an airport hazard zone ordinance and litigation. “We’re generally very conservative with money,” said Mayor Julia Allen. “But we’re fighters, too.” Allen said the township is taking the land to preserve open space and to halt the sprawl that threatens to spread west on Route 22, just a couple miles north of the airport.

Solberg Airport is owned by the Solberg family and is just west of the Somerset County line in Hunterdon County. It sits on about 100 acres and is surrounded by more than 600 acres of open space. Readington resident Don Baldwin said the township is wasting taxpayer money because there is no real threat of expansion or development. And the three Solberg siblings who own the land say it feels like the government is trying to take their family’s legacy. Lorraine Solberg, Suzy Solberg Nagle and Thor Solberg Jr. inherited the airport and the surrounding land from their father, Thor, a renowned aviator. Thor Solberg opened the airport in 1941.

Since 1990, the township has considered acquiring the Solberg land for open space three times. Now, the township is five years into its third attempt. When Readington and the Solbergs were unable to agree on a price, the township invoked its right of eminent domain, offering to pay the family $22 million, which a state assessor had said the land was worth. The Solbergs went to court. Readington’s condemnation was upheld. In August, that decision was reversed. So township officials took their case to the state Supreme Court. Special counsel James Rhatican filed the township’s petition on Sept. 17; counter briefs have followed. A response from the court is expected soon. Lawrence Orloff, attorney for the Solbergs, believes the township’s chances of getting a hearing are slim. “Just statistically, very few of them are granted,” he said. Meanwhile, residents such as Lewis are asking township officials to settle the suit and end the legal spending. Retired from the chemical industry the 74-year old says he is fed up with the township’s efforts to take the Solberg land. “They’re trying to do it under the cover of land preservation,” he said “… They are trying to muzzle the airport.”

Allen said the township is taking the long view. “The argument for the effort is the same as it has been for almost a decade now, or more,” she said. “To protect the open space, the environment, Readington’s historic character; rural character, water quality, air quality and to preserve the airport as it is today.”

Veronica Slaght is a reporter for the New Jersey Local News Service. She may be reached at (908) 243-6239 or vslaght@njins.com

For more information please visit Save Solberg Airport.com

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Amanda Michelle (Younkin) Franklin 3/14/1986 – 5/27/2011 Click for information on Amanda