Homes are incompatible with Runway Protection Zones at the end of runways. If the governmental attempts to acquire only an easement, Michigan law allows a property owner to demand that their entire property be purchased.
Since 2005, I have been involved in representing property owners adjacent to the Lenawee County Airport in Adrian, Michigan. The County initiated condemnation proceedings to impose avigation easements over five residential homes, thus placing them in the Runway Protection Zone. According to FAA documents:
The RPZ’s function is to enhance the protection of people and property on the ground. This is achieved through an airport owner control over RPZs. Such control includes clearing RPZ areas (and maintaining the clear) of incompatible objects and activities. Control is preferably exercised through the acquisition of sufficient property interest in the RPZ.
The FAA recognizes that “incompatible activities include, but are not limited to, those which lead to an assembly of people.” The FAA also indicates that “land uses prohibited from the RPZ are residences and places of public assembly.”
The federal government has recognized the importance of clearing areas beyond the ends of runways since a commission initiated by President Eisenhower issued a report titled “The Airport and Its Neighbors.” Following that report, RPZs were originally called Clear Zones. When it comes to homes, the original, literal name should apply.
The size of an RPZ is based upon a number of factors including runway length and types of aircraft that use the airport.
It is important to note that RPZs are designed to prevent incompatible land uses. Therefore, the analysis relating to an RPZ is different that the analysis relating to an obstruction, which is defined as an object that penetrates the bottom line of an airplane’s flight path. For example, a large building could be an obstruction even if it is not within the RPZ if it is tall enough. On the other hand, an incompatible land use such as a home should not exist in an RPZ, even if it is not tall enough to be deemed an obstruction.
The boundaries of an RPZ are not arbitrary. The RPZ represents an area in which a high percentage of accidents occur. Therefore, eliminating residential occupation and land uses allowing public assembly within an RPZ will remove people on the ground from areas where accidents occur most frequently. In addition, the existence of development within an RPZ can actually increase the likelihood that a crash could occur by surprising or distracting a pilot or by effecting a pilot’s night vision, among many other examples.
Notwithstanding the FAA’s unequivocal guidance and extensive scientific analysis of aircraft data, the Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics has been attempting to push the envelope by encouraging local airports to undertake expansions without clearing RPZs incompatible uses. They have encouraged the imposition of easements over properties with homes rather than purchasing the homes outright. Frankly, this appears to be an attempt to dupe property owners who do not understand the impact of the property rights being acquired and facilitating airport expansion projects by avoiding payment of appropriate just compensation to effected property owners.
Fortunately, property owners have the ability to oppose this type of conduct. MCL 213.54, a law that is part of the Uniform Condemnation Procedures Act, allows property owners to demand that the government take their entire property if they establish that the practical value or utility of the property has been destroyed following the imposition of an easement. In Lenawee County, I tried cases involving avigation easements over homes in June and October, 2012. In both instances, the jury forced the County of pay the property owners the full value of their homes. I was able to accomplish this result as part of a team effort including my co-counsel, an expert real estate appraiser, aviation and piloting experts and a real estate broker.
Any property owner confronted with RPZ issues should contact a lawyer with this type of experience and expert connections in order to fully protect the safety of their families and maximize their just compensation.
If you would like more details, a number of the newspaper articles posted in this blog describe the airport cases that I have handled in Adrian, Michigan.