The eminent domain battle between the New Jersey township of Readington (my home town) and Solberg Airport, which began in 2006, reached a new stage in May when a court ruled in favor of Solberg Airport. Eminent domain was initiated to prevent the development of Solberg Airport’s unused land, possibly intro a housing development of airport expansion. The court concluded that Readington’s attempted use of eminent domain against the airport was a "manifest abuse of power." This was the third consecutive court loss for Readington, which cost the taxpayers and the Solbergs millions of dollars in legal fees and other related expenses.
I don’t know where the battle goes from here. But I do know that the debate among residents will continue. That being the case, I want to address a letter published in the Hunterdon County Democrat in February 2015 titled Inverse Condemnation. In his letter, John Kalinich Jr. claimed that if the Solberg’s expand their airport, it would lower home property values, resulting in “inverse condemnation.” (A previous letter writer used the term “reverse eminent domain.)
Having followed this issue for many years, it is apparent to me that the alternative to litigation is the inevitable expansion of Solberg Airport into a jetport capable of 24/7 operations in good weather and bad. The litigation is all that stands in the way of the resumption of the Solberg's development plans. Without it, we will again be at the mercy of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration because they have jurisdiction over approval and preemptive authority over our municipality. We learned, much to our dismay, in the decade between 1995 and 2005 that the township has no meaningful say in the matter of an airport expansion.
Thor Solberg has testified under oath during the trial that he will expand his airport. Now Don Baldwin is trying to lay the groundwork for a full political takeover of the Township Committee in the June primary. He and the Solbergs know that this would be, by far, the easiest way to accomplish the Solberg's expansion goal. An expansion would rob Readington residents of the property value in their homes. An inverse condemnation! Solberg's financial gain would become our financial loss.
All of the actions taken by the Township Committee to budget for the trial and deal with increases were transparent and fully compliant with the law, and certainly not unusual or underhanded as Holman and Baldwin would have us believe. The costs of the trial are a necessary investment in the future of our township and I am happy to pay my share to protect my investment in my home here. [emphasis added]
I left these comments:
Let’s get our terms straight. In this context, “condemnation”—or eminent domain—means only one thing; forcible taking of private land by governmental action. There is no such thing as “inverse condemnation.” There is only condemnation. There is no condemnation action against your property. There is against the Solberg’s land. Eminent domain is strictly a government action. No private person, acting as a private person, can initiate any condemnation.
What about property values? There are many things that affect property values; highways, industrial parks, schools, housing developments, railroads, shopping malls, pipelines. Should all of those things—and anything else deemed by existing property owners to be bad for property values—be stopped? Indeed, “value” is in the eye of the beholder. Many people once believed—and some, sadly, still believe—that a neighborhood sale to the “wrong” racial or ethnic neighbor will drag down his property values. Should communities be allowed to legally bar certain family from buying homes based on their ethnicity?
This would be NIMBYism run amok. If the peaceable use of our land were at the mercy of anyone who alleges a loss of property values—real or imagined—we wouldn’t have an advanced industrial society. Or a free society. Or any kind of civilized society.
No one has a “right” to any particular resale value. No one has a “right” not to be affected by other people’s property usage. There is only the right to the peaceable use of one’s own property, possessed equally and at all times by all. The question is not, does person A’s use of his land ‘affect’ person B? When people live amongst each other, there are no end to ways in which one person’s actions can affect another. The only valid question is, does person A’s use of his property violate the property rights of person B; by, for example, polluting person B’s property? Then and only then can person A be stopped. But it is never just to take person A’s property from him against his will.
Put more specifically, does the expansion of Solberg Airport objectively infringe on other people’s right to be physically safe and secure on his property, or in his use of his property? I don’t know all of the issues involved in airport expansion. Perhaps there are valid reasons for preventing airport expansion. That’s to be hashed out in an objective forum under due process. One thing that is certain: the Solberg’s have a right to use their land in any legal and peaceable way they please, just like the rest of us—so long as their use doesn’t violate the rights of others. They have a right to apply for approvals for airport expansion, and surrounding property owners have a right to present their case against if they believe expansion would violate their property rights. But no one has a right to use eminent domain—i.e., legalized theft—as a means of preventing Solberg’s plans.
For the record, I have no ties to the airport vested interests. I spoke briefly with Don Baldwin on a couple of occasions. My wife and I met John Broten [a township committeeman who ran against and defeated the incumbents who initiated the Solberg eminent domain lawsuit] on one occasion. I have never met any of the Solberg family. I am neither pro- or anti-airport. I am a citizen concerned about the steady erosion of our rights and liberty by a government increasingly used as a tool of special interests seeking to impose their values on others by legalized force. As I said in my pre-election letter last October, Is any taking just?, eminent domain “contradicts every fundamental premise of America.” All around the country, eminent domain is increasingly trampling people’s property rights, including homeowners. None of us are safe from eminent domain. It is a cancer that must be stopped. You say “All of the actions taken by the Township Committee to budget for the trial . . . were transparent and fully compliant with the law.” Perhaps. But that only confirms how corrupt our law has become. As I said in my letter, “That our government has the power of eminent domain doesn’t mitigate its immorality . . .”
I live in Readington. I’d prefer the airport stay as is. But if keeping it that way means continuing the legal action against Solberg Airport, violating their property rights, I’d prefer to live with an expanded airport. You say you are “happy to pay” your “share” of the trial costs. Well, I’m not, and no one has the moral right—and shouldn’t have the legal right—to force me to continue doing so against my conscience and convictions. If you and like-minded residents want to pool your money privately and voluntarily and attempt to buy the land in a private contract with the Solbergs, for the purpose of purchasing and preserving the land in question, you are free to do so. But you have no right to use the municipal government to force others to join you. The proper purpose of a government is to protect, equally and at all times, every individual’s right to act on his own judgement. Readington’s condemnation proceeding violates that purpose. For practical, philosophical, and moral reasons, the eminent domain suit against Solberg Airport must end.
Kalinich Jr.’s term “inverse condemnation” is another manifestation of the blurring of the distinction between government force and private voluntary action. The failure to know or acknowledge the difference is a major cause of the growth of rights-violating government controls. For a clarification of this issue, see Harry Binswanger, The Dollar and the Gun.
Big Government vs. Big Business; or, Political Power vs. Economic Power