Appeals court rules Sheffield man can keep private airfield

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SHEFFIELD — Following several years of litigation, the state Appeals Court ruled last week that a Sheffield man cannot be prohibited by the town from flying in and out of his private airfield, unless the town is specifically protected by a bylaw that addresses the activity.

In 2006, according to court documents, John R. Hanlon Jr. constructed an 80-foot-wide airstrip that was 1,250 feet long on his property. The 38-acre parcel also contained a number of outbuildings that were suitable for storing aircraft. The land is located on a private road off Hulett Hill Road near the Sheffield-New Marlborough border.

Attorney Alexandra Glover, representing Hanlon, said her client was pleased with the decision.

The Appeals Court ruled that while the Town of Sheffield prohibits, by zoning, commercial aviation enterprises in most of the town, it cannot prohibit private aviation unless a specific, applicable bylaw is approved by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

The Appeals Court, in its ruling, differentiated between those two actions.

Sheffield's zoning bylaws did not have that permission said Glover in an email.

She said she believes the ruling is a key one because many towns in the Berkshires and beyond are not cognizant of the provision that aviation-related bylaws are subject to the DOT's approval.

"I don't think you'll find a lot of towns in the Berkshires who are aware of this," she wrote in an email.

Hanlon flew aircraft in and out of the airstrip for several years. The strip, according to court documents, was registered with the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 2011, the town's building inspector issued Hanlon a cease-and-desist order, ruling that the town's zoning bylaws did not allow private airstrips.

The town's bylaws did allow commercial airstrips under certain specific conditions, but omitted any mention of private airstrips. Like the bylaws of many towns in the Berkshires and in Massachusetts, the town operates on the principle that if an activity is not mentioned, it is not allowed.

Hanlon appealed the decision to the Sheffield Zoning Board of Appeals. After four hearings on the matter in January and February of 2012, the ZBA upheld the building inspector's ruling.

Hanlon appealed the decision to the state Land Court in 2012.

The ruling came down on Friday, May 13.

The court ruled that towns that do not obtain DOT approval for these regulations cannot prohibit private airfields and air operations, even if there are no specific regulations in a town's bylaw handbook addressing private airfields.

Town administrator Rhonda LaBombard said that she hasn't read the entire decision, and has yet to present it to the selectmen and thus declined to comment.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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