Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Plaintiff to Use Property as Noncommercial Landing Area

The Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently decided a zoning issue involving a private, noncommercial aircraft landing area on the residential property of the plaintiff. In Hanlon v. Town of Sheffield (Mass. App. Ct. May 13, 2016), the plaintiff owned nearly 40 acres of land, which included his residence as well as some hangars for small planes and a landing strip built by the plaintiff. In 2006, the plaintiff registered the property with the Federal Aviation Administration as a helipad and as a noncommercial private restricted landing area with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation aviation division.

However, the bylaws of the town where the plaintiff lived did not specifically allow him to use his property as a private restricted landing area for noncommercial use. As a result, the plaintiff was ordered in 2011 to stop using the property in that manner. He challenged the town’s bylaw on the grounds that the town had failed to submit it for approval to the Department of Transportation.

The zoning board and the Land Court ruled in favor of the town, holding that the bylaw was valid and prohibited this use of the property. The plaintiff appealed, asking the court to determine whether Massachusetts law allows a municipality to ban noncommercial private restricted landing areas without receiving prior approval from the Department of Transportation.

Massachusetts G.L. c. 90, § 39B requires that a municipality making any rule, regulation, ordinance, or bylaw concerning the use and operation of aircraft on an airport or restricted landing area receive approval from the Department of Transportation prior to taking effect. However, the statute also made clear in an earlier passage (created before the section at issue) that the section does not apply to restricted landing areas designed for noncommercial private use. According to the plain language of G.L. c. 90, § 39B, therefore, noncommercial private landing areas were not subject to the statutory requirements.

As a result, the court could interpret G.L. c. 90, § 39B as requiring the town’s regulation of private noncommercial landing areas to be subject to division approval, or it could interpret the statute to declare that there is no basis for any municipal regulation at the outset. The court decided on the former interpretation, reading the previously enacted paragraph to apply only to the preceding paragraphs of the statute, not to the fifth paragraph.  Municipalities could therefore regulate private noncommercial landing areas, but not without approval from the Department of Transportation.

While the court’s decision resolved the discrepancies created by the statute, it also confirmed that the town could not enact a bylaw concerning noncommercial private landing areas without prior approval from the Department of Transportation. Since the town failed to do so, the appeals court found in favor of the plaintiff and reversed the judgment against him.

At the Massachusetts firm of Pulgini & Norton, our experienced real estate attorneys represent clients in a wide range of property law issues, including land use and zoning, easements, and other land transactions. To discuss your real estate needs with one of our skilled attorneys, call Pulgini & Norton at (781) 843-2200 or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Land Court Affirms Denial of Homeowner’s Application for Zoning Variance, Special Permit, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 14, 2015

Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Homeowners to Operate Commercial Horse Farm on Property, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published October 26, 2015



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