If we are the government, whom does eminent domain really serve?

Home News Tribune Online 04/18/06

The public debate over eminent domain is nowhere more intense than in Readington Township, where I live.

The issue out there is Solberg Airport, which some readers may be familiar with as the site of an annual hot-air balloon festival.

People in town are worried that the Solberg family will expand the runway at that airport so that it can handle corporate jets. The northern part of New Jersey does not have enough capacity for such jets.

These planes, my neighbors reason, would be considerably louder than the small craft that use the airport now, they would fly at relatively low altitudes over residential areas and schools, and the whole proposition would have a negative effect on property values.

The Solbergs insist that they do not plan to accommodate corporate jets but want to continue to run the airport as their family has for many years. And they say they have spurned developers who have wanted to buy the vast expanse of land that surrounds the facility.

This argument has been going on for some time, and it was the principal issue in the municipal election campaign last fall. Since then, the township governing body has passed an ordinance authorizing the sale of $22 million in bonds; the proceeds are to be used to preserve the land around the airport as open space and buy the development rights to the airport itself while allowing the Solbergs to continue running their business as it is.

After the ordinance was adopted, residents of the township successfully petitioned to require a public vote before the bonds can be sold.

Underlying all this is the specter of eminent domain, because the Solbergs are not interested in selling their property and, if they were, wouldn't be likely to agree to the price the township wants to pay.

Since I live near that airport and drive past it every weekday, I should have a position on this issue. My self-serving instinct is to argue for hemming in the Solbergs as much as possible so that if and when we decide to sell our townhouse, we won't have to raise our voices over jet engines in order to talk to prospective buyers.

But I keep tripping over what seems to be a larger matter, and that is people's right to own and use private property. The idea that the township might in the end forcibly take land that the Solberg family has owned for decades especially in the absence of any imminent plan to change the way the airport operates makes me shudder.

Since the Solbergs have said repeatedly that they don't want to sell their land, what other purpose could the bond sale serve except making the first step toward condemnation?

That should be a last resort, and then only in situations in which there is a severe threat to the public good. The case in my town hasn't reached that point.

Governments that do such things are not impersonal entities. Governments are us, and we should think hard about our interest in our own property before being so highhanded with property that belongs to others.

Charles Paolino is executive editor of the Home News Tribune. (732) 565-7210. E-mail: cpaolino@thnt.com