Many local zoning bylaws regulate the use of residential property in a town or municipality. In a November 7, 2016 decision, the Massachusetts Land Court considered whether a local bylaw prohibiting airfields was invalid. The plaintiffs in the case were ordered by the town’s building inspector to cease and desist operations at the private airfield on their property, on the ground that such use was not permitted under the town’s zoning bylaw. That order was upheld by the Stow Zoning Board of Appeals and subsequently appealed to the Land Court.
The plaintiffs’ property was used to operate an aviation museum and housed a number of vintage aircraft in working condition. The property also contained an airfield registered with the Aeronautics Division as a non-commercial private restricted landing area. Many of the neighboring landowners objected to the noise and disruption caused by landing aircraft and aviation events held on the plaintiffs’ property, which prompted Stow’s building inspector to issue the cease-and-desist order prohibiting the use of the airfield.
Under Massachusetts law, a municipality must obtain the approval of the Aeronautics Division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation before regulating the use or operation of aircraft on airfields. In the current case, the bylaw at issue prohibited airfields entirely, everywhere in the town. Although airport and landing field use had previously been allowed in many of the town’s districts, Stow’s zoning bylaw was amended in 1982 to delete it as a permitted use. The town applied for approval of the prohibition in its bylaw some time thereafter. The Aeronautics Division, however, denied approval to the extent that the bylaw sought to regulate aviation activity within its boundaries.