SJC Affirms Authority of Cities and Towns to Regulate Use of Land for Private Aircraft

We are pleased to announce that Attorney Jackie Cowin has secured a ruling with important ramifications for cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth.  The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled today that cities and towns have authority, under their zoning powers, to regulate the use of of land for the landing of non-commercial private aircraft.

In the case of Roma, III, Ltd. v. The Town of Rockport, the SJC held that the Fifth Paragraph of G.L. c.  90, §39B (“Section 39B”), which provides that municipal regulation of “the use and operation of aircraft” must be approved by the Massachusetts Division of Aeronautics to take effect, does not require the Division of Aeronautics to approve local zoning laws which regulate or prohibit the use of land as “non-commercial private restricted landing areas.”   In issuing this ruling, the SJC reversed a previous ruling by the Appeals Court in the case of Hanlon v. Town of Sheffield, which held that Section 39B did require that any local regulation of the use of land for the landing of private aircraft must first be approved by the Aeronautics Division.  Historically, the Aeronautics Division had looked with great disfavor upon local zoning laws which regulated private aircraft landing areas.

In the Rockport case, the plaintiff Roma, III, Ltd. argued before the Land Court that the Town’s Zoning Bylaw, which prohibits private aircraft landing areas, was invalid because it had not been approved by the Aeronautics Division.  The Land Court Judge agreed, entering an order that Rockport’s prohibition on private landing areas was invalid, although he stated that he was “constrained” to do so by the Hanlon decision.  Rockport sought Direct Appellate Review of the Land Court decision, which review was granted by the SJC.

The SJC reversed the Land Court ruling, holding that nothing in Section 39B or related statutes indicates that the Legislature intended to preempt the traditional zoning and Home Rule powers of cities and towns to regulate the use of land for private aircraft.  The SJC also noted that, if cities and towns were deprived of such authority, they would be unable to protect residents from the “deleterious consequences” that could arise from location of a non-commercial private restricted landing area, which is a primary purpose of zoning.


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