Attorney and alternative BRPC member Alexandra Glover represented Hanlon during the case and updated BRPC about the implications of the outcome on the municipal level on Thursday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A recent appeals court ruling against the town of Sheffield may have impacts on zoning throughout the state.
In May, the state court's decision sided with Sheffield resident John Hanlon in a battle over a private landing strip Hanlon built and registered.
The strip was just some 1,250 feet long in a field among some 38 acres of land he owns. It was registered with the state and sat in a mowed hayfield.
However, in 2011, the town of Sheffield ruled that his property did not conform to zoning bylaws, which did not specify that type of land use. In zoning, when a use is not specified in the law it is restricted.
Hanlon took the town to court and ultimately the decision was that the state Department of Transportation approves any bylaws restricting aeronautical use. Because Sheffield didn't have that approval, Hanlon won the case.
"We may not regulate it unless the regulation is approved by the aeronautics division," attorney Alexandra Glover, who represented Hanlon in the case, told the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission on Thursday. "It is one of the most important decisions this year. It is not going to be a sleeper issue very much longer."
The ruling makes an impact on many towns that may think they have coverage. Few towns have explicitly covered aeronautical use in their bylaws and few have had those approved by MassDOT so aeronautical use is fair game as long as the individual is following federal and state aviation laws. Many towns may think there is no way a helicopter or plane could land in town but that isn't true and there is no recourse for a town to stop aviation activity through town bylaws.
"I was glad to win the case but I went back to my Planning Board and said 'we need to look at this,'" said Glover, who is an alternative BRPC member from Alford.
Currently there are about a half-dozen private landing fields but the process is simple for those who want to create new ones.
Glover told the BRPC members to go back to their planning boards and address the concern. She suggest a brainstorming session in which town officials write down every way they'd be looking to regulate air traffic and then ask MassDOT for comments, starting a conversation with the state officials.
She also said MassDOT's aeronautics division won't be likely too approve complete restrictions on aircraft.
"I would really recommend that everyone go back to their planning boards and go through this process ... I'm not sure if anyone paid attention to this," Glover said.
Not even the Attorney General's Office, which needs to approve zoning bylaws, notify the town that aviation approvals were needed, she said.
BRPC is now taking it on itself to make sure all 32 Berkshire towns know about it. The commission voted to send a letter to town managers, mayors, boards of selectmen, and planning boards in each community informing them of the ruling.
"We are considerably ahead of other communities in talking about this," Sheffield representative Rene Wood said. "I think the implications of this will be similar for every one of our 32 communities."
Upon Wood's request, the issue was sent to a regional issues subcommittee to find ways for BRPC to help towns handle issues related to revisiting the laws — from lighting to times aircraft can fly to noise. The ruling has just been released so there will certainly be a number of questions regarding the topic.
Washington representative Michael Case said not only is MassDOT involved in the process but the Federal Aviation Agency trumps those rulings, which may add to the issue in the future.
"This is going to be a hot-ticket issue for a while," Case said.
Further, commission members brought up the use of drones and how those will be regulated. Wood, however, said conversation will be driven by Amazon and other companies using the technology on a national level. Further, the technology is changing so rapidly that a local committee would just be spinning its wheel trying to keep up.
Pittsfield City Planner CJ Hoss questioned how drones would be regulated at all by zoning because "that is not a land use." While Glover said the drones do fly in and out of airspace, which is owned by the landowner underneath.
Nonetheless, the issue of drones was pushed to the side on Thursday as the commission focused mostly on the use of planes and helicopters.
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