ROCKPORT — The state's highest court has come down on the side of Rockport in a long-running battle over one resident's desire to land his helicopter at his waterfront home.
The Supreme Judicial Court, in a decision released Monday, concluded that legislators never intended to usurp the authority of local officials when it comes to zoning restrictions such as the one that would bar the heliport that homeowner Ron Roma built on his Granite Street property several years ago.
"We hold that there is no clear legislative intent to preempt local zoning" when it comes to permitting things like helipads or landing strips on private property, Chief Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the court.
Roma, who splits his time between Massachusetts and Florida, is a licensed helicopter pilot who drew the attention — and ire — of neighbors in 2014 when he landed a helicopter on his 1.6-acre lot.
When the chopper wasn't on his Federal Aviation Administration-approved helipad, Roma stored it at Beverly Airport.
The town quickly moved to stop Roma from doing it again. He appealed to the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, but lost. He then went to Land Court to appeal the board's decision.
In the fall of 2016, three judges of the state Appeals Court ruled in a similar pending case in the western Massachusetts town of Sheffield. That decision said that Sheffield's bylaw prohibiting helipads and airstrips was invalid because it had not been approved by the state Department of Transportation's aeronautics division, something the law appeared to require.
After that ruling, Roma and his lawyers amended their Land Court appeal to include the same argument, and asked a judge there to grant summary judgment in their favor. When the Land Court judge agreed, the town appealed.
The SJC decided to hear the case directly rather than let it go through the Appeals Court first. Its decision Monday suggests why: the SJC concluded that the Appeals Court decision in the Sheffield case had been wrong.
The wrong issue
Gants, in the 21-page decision, said the Appeals Court panel had focused on the wrong issue and that its reasoning had a major "flaw" — that the real issue was how cities and towns regulate the use of land, not aircraft.
"In short, what was at issue in Hanlon (the Sheffield case) was not the 'use and operation of aircraft' ... but the use of land, the regulation of which has traditionally been within the domain of cities and towns through their zoning authority."
"The Legislature has long bestowed broad authority on cities and towns to regulate the use of land through various zoning enactments," the decision said.
The SJC concluded that if the state aeronautics code was able to simply override local zoning, cities and towns "will be unable to protect (their) residents from any of the potential harms and deleterious consequences that may arise from the location of a noncommercial private restricted landing area." And that's not something, Gants wrote, that state lawmakers could have intended.
The ruling does not end the case, however. The decision vacates the Land Court's summary judgment ruling dismissing the case and puts it back on the docket there, where Roma will have a chance to argue the other grounds of his appeal.
The Land Court never addressed those other grounds, which include a claim that the town violated Roma's due process rights, that a helipad is an appropriate "accessory" use of the site, and that the town's decision was "arbitrary and capricious" because the town bylaw doesn't specifically address helipads.
Town Administrator Linda Sanders said she informed selectmen of the ruling Monday and that they were "very, very happy" with the decision.
"Basically, we're just relieved that not only Rockport, but other towns throughout the Commonwealth, can manage their own land use," Sanders said.
She said she believes that the debate centering around the use of a helicopter was misplaced. Rather, "it's directly about our wanting to be able to control our own land use here in town," said Sanders.
Roma's attorney, Jeffrey Angley, did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.