The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today the town of Rockport can keep a resident who'd rather fly than drive from building and using a helipad on his property.
The court ruled that zoning codes in Massachusetts trump a state law that seems to say residents can operate whirlibirds to and from their homes without local authority in some cases and that that does not interfere with state or federal laws promoting aviation, because those are aimed at flying in general, not the location of specific landing areas. Towns, the court said, have the right to determine how land within their borders is used.
Ron Roma, who regularly flies his helicopter to "his various family homes, business engagements, and other activities," got a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 to use his 1.6-acre oceanfront property as "a licensed private use heliport" when he wasn't storing the craft and flying it out of Beverly Airport.
The next year, Roma landed his helicopter on his property. Not long after, the town building inspector heard about that and issued an order that he knock it off, because "a heliport is not allowed, either as a principal use of the property or an accessory use, in any zoning district in the Town."
Roma then took off to the town zoning board, which rejected his request for zoning relief. But he found fairer skies in Land Court, where a judge agreed with him that state aeronautics law, dating to 1946, seemed to require state approval of any aircraft-related zoning codes and Rockport had not obtained such approval - mainly because under the town zoning code, anything not explicitly allowed in the code is forbidden, and the code does not make specific mention of private aircraft.
But the state's highest court noted that the law was related mainly to the construction of municipal airports and the needs of "civil aviation," not a person's right to build a landing area on their residentially zoned land. And then there's the whole issue of the sanctity of zoning in Massachusetts:
Where land use regulation has long been recognized by the Legislature to be a prerogative of local government, we will not infer that the enactment of the aeronautics code reflects a clear legislative intent to preempt all local zoning bylaws that might affect noncommercial private restricted landing areas based on the risk of frustrating the legislative purpose of fostering private flying.
Nor are we persuaded that the Legislature, by granting the division "general supervision and control over aeronautics," G. L. c. 90, § 39, intended to preempt all local land use regulation that might affect the use of land for private heliports. If local zoning authorities must depend on division approval to protect their residents from the types of harm or nuisances that might arise from the establishment of a noncommercial private restricted landing area, cities and towns will be unable to ensure that their residents will be adequately protected from these harms and nuisances. If the Legislature wishes to preempt local zoning regarding noncommercial private restricted landing areas, it must provide a clearer indication of such intent.