Airport vote would be referendum on seizure

Readington voters likely will have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the township should offer up to $22 million to try to buy development rights at Solberg Airport.

But the vote wouldn't really be about that $22 million. Approval would, realistically, indicate public support for potentially seizing the airport through eminent domain.

The Township Committee approved the $22 million bond in February, with the idea of using that money for a contingency-free cash offer to the Solberg family. Officials want the development rights, because they fear the Solbergs want to expand the facility to accommodate jets.

But committee members already have conceded they don't expect the Solbergs to accept that offer. And that seems rather obvious now considering that the petition to force the bonding to a public vote -- and potentially overturn it -- was generated by the Solbergs and the airport's supporters. In other words, they don't even want the money the township wants to give them.

All of which means that, barring a virtual surrender by the Solbergs, this fight is headed for a condemnation attempt and the courts.

Last week, co-owner Thor Solberg released a statement announcing that more than 1,800 signatures had been collected to force a public vote on the bond. That's about double the amount of certified signatures that would be required to prompt the referendum.

Committeewoman Julia Allen said officials had been anticipating this all along and would welcome the voters' input. That doesn't entirely ring true, of course, considering the Township Committee could have decided for itself to put the bond to a public vote. But it's fair to say Allen and other township leaders feel they have sufficient support in the community -- and sufficient fear of the Solbergs' intentions -- to pass the bond.

If that happens, however, the Solbergs obviously don't plan to accept such an offer for the development rights. So approval of the bond is actually setting the stage -- and lining up the money -- for an eminent domain seizure.

If the bond plan is rejected at the polls, on the other hand, what then? Township Committee members have insisted for years that the community overwhelmingly wants the airport to stay as it is, with no jets. Even assuming the truth of that belief, if residents don't want to pay to try to secure that, then what can -- or should -- be done to control any expansion visions of the Solbergs?

Those are among the questions Readington voters should be thinking about long before they actually cast a vote on this issue. Because it's a safe bet that $22 million won't be buying anything anytime soon.

from the Courier News website