Cities and towns have the right to keep residents from landing helicopters next to their homes, court rules

Helicopter

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.

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PDF icon Complete Roma ruling195.53 KB

Comments

Existing Regulations are Useful

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You can't just pave a massive swath of your property.

You can't just regrade an area, either.

Runoff is a huge issue - impacts municipal storm water systems, septic systems, etc.

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Plus fire safety

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I don't know much about putting out fires, but I would bet the kind of apparatus and training associated with dealing with a whirlygig crash and fire is significantly different than a motorcar crash.

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State Aeronautics laws need to be updated ASAP

The commercial pressures to have large, heavy drones flying around are coming and we should figure out how that's going to work in terms of property rights, etc... now.

I wonder if the neighbors/town could have also sued him for noise in the same way they could if he was driving around with a car without a muffler.

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Property rights?

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If you paved a part of your yard and started parking your car on it, you would get the same response.

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" mainly because under the

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" mainly because under the town zoning code, anything not explicitly allowed in the code is forbidden"

Pick up that can.

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Federal and State

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Federal and State Constitutions void where prohibited by MA law. -MA SJC since the 1970s

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Yeah, that part struck me, too

Have they explicitly allowed badminton, croquet, sunbathing, cookouts, yard sales, sitting on the stoop, walking to the mailbox, and mowing the lawn? I bet they have not.

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Cambridge used similar logic

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Cambridge used similar logic to ban chickens and ducks a few years ago. They said since it's not commonly done, and it's not explicitly allowed, it therefore is forbidden under existing zoning code.

Even though keeping birds in the city used to be common decades ago, and there's at least one house in Cambridge that has kept chickens continuously since then.

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Cambridge used similar logic...

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And until about 10 years ago the Cambridge Excise tax form for business required you to list all of your farm animals (goats, pigs, cows, chickens), along with your computers, desks and chairs. I found that odd at the time...

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But he can hire

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a pilot to lower a basket to pick him up and drop him off without actually touching down, right?

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Yeah, in this case, I agree

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Yeah, in this case, I agree with the outcome, but I disapprove of the legal logic that led to it.

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Well

good news if you're visiting by car.

Sucks for those of us who prefer a faster, more air based form of travel.

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My easy bet

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This will be appealed to the SJC.

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Not right away

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The case originated in Land Court, then got appealed to the Massachusetts Court of Appeals. Next stop is the SJC. It will only get to the Supreme Court if the losing side can convince the justices that there is in fact a federal issue. Otherwise, like in Goodridge v Koh, the SJC is the last stop.

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If this is upheld, maybe the city will do something

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About the hovering helicopters that are often flying low over beacon hill/ north end for sunrise beauty shots for their broadcasts. They can be fairly loud, linger for long periods and fly pretty low. City has responded that it’s an FAA issue and they can’t do anything. Perhaps not true...

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No, that is true

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The feds have jurisdiction over the air (and for that matter, over airports - the issue here dealt with a private landing pad for one man's helicopter, which is not the same as an airport, and the court wasn't ruling on whether he could fly his copter in the air, only whether the town could stop him from landing it at his house).

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Court mixup

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I suppose no one opened the PDF... this was an SJC opinion.

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Arrgh, stupid reporter

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Who, in fact, did open the decision and read it and yet, amazingly, still got it wrong, because he keeps doing that, because, well, stupid. Fixed.

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So technically

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I won my bet.

The subject seemed too dry, so I will admit that I only read the summary.

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