Overflights from airport should not be examined using regulatory takings standards

by Kaitlin Heinen

Robert E. Brenner v. City of New Richmond
(Wisconsin Supreme Court, July 17, 2012)

The New Richmond Regional Airport is owned and operated by the City of New Richmond. In September 2006, the Airport began a construction project to extend its main runway by 1500 feet, which was completed in June 2007.  To make the runway extension possible, the City had acquired, by direct condemnation, 62 acres of land from the Wickenhausers, whose land bordered the north end of the Airport. Also acquired by the City was a 3.813-acre avigation easement over parts of the remaining 80 acres of the Wickenhausers’ property. (An avigation easement is an “easement permitting unimpeded aircraft flight over the servient estate.”) This 3.813-acre avigation easement covered the airspace above the Wickenhausers’ personal residence and dairy barn.  The Wickenhausers asked the City to condemn the entire 142.5 acres of their property—which the city declined to do. In addition, Robert E. Brenner’s house is 816 feet from the extended runway, and Allan and Susan Seidlings’ home is 1503 feet from the extended runway. Like the Wickenhausers, Brenner and the Seidlings asked the City to condemn their land after learning of the extension—their requests were also declined. As result of their denied condemnation requests, all three parties alleged inverse condemnation under Wis. Stat. §32.10.

Collectively, the landowners’ testimonies complained of noise, dust, dirt, flashing lights, disruptions of sleep, diminished enjoyment of the property, safety concerns, direct over-flights, and decreases in property value. Brenner, the Seidlings, and the Wickenhausers argued that the Airport’s runway extension amounted to a compensable taking of an easement, since they have suffered adverse effects as a result of increased aircraft over-flights. In opposition, the City testified that the Airport had installed a blast pad to control dust and erosion. Additionally, the circuit court found that the medical helicopter and a jet that formerly used the Airport are no longer hangared there. However, the circuit court also found conflicting information that aircraft usage had increased by two-thirds since the runway’s extension. Brenner, who is a licensed pilot himself, testified that some pilots did not follow standard traffic patterns and submitted video evidence of this. The City objected, claiming that they cannot be held responsible for what pilots do illegally. (However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reasoned that because the Airport is owned by the City, the City is liable for aircraft using the Airport–the City is in a far superior position to enforce FAA flight standards as opposed to neighboring landowners.)

The circuit court relied on the real estate appraiser’s determination that the extended runway reduced the Wickenhausers’ property value, at most, by 20%. Then citing the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Causby, the circuit court ruled that for a taking to have happened, the property owner must have been deprived of all or practically all beneficial use of the property.  The Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed, holding that this case is a physical occupation case, and the standard used by the circuit court involves regulatory takings, which does not apply. The case was remanded back to the circuit court, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the Airport’s petition for review.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court addressed the two conflicting standards at issue here: “(1) whether the over-flights are low enough and frequent enough to have a direct and immediate effect on the use and enjoyment of the property, or (2) whether the over-flights deprive the property owner of all of substantially all beneficial use of property?”

The United States Supreme Court’s previous decisions in Causby and Griggs are the controlling law with respect to takings of private property by aircraft over-flights. Causby involved frequent, regular aircraft over-flights over a personal residence. The aircraft in this case flew so low (even though the altitudes were approved at that time in 1923) that they barely missed the tops of the trees and killed the landowner’s 150 chickens who fatally flew into the walls of their enclosures from fright. The Supreme Court recognized that Congress placed navigable airspace into the public domain; however, The Court also acknowledged that property owners must be allowed to have control of the immediate reaches of enveloping atmosphere above their property, which includes the super-adjacent airspace below the altitude that is set as navigable. The Court thus established a test to determine whether or not a taking had occurred: over-flights by government aircraft do not constitute a taking unless they are so low and so frequent as to be a direct interference in the enjoyment and use of the property. This is the standard that should be applied wherever Causby is cited as the controlling law in a case. The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that the Causby standard is the appropriate standard that must be applied in this case. The determination of whether or not the aircraft over-flights have been low enough and frequent enough to have a direct effect on the use and enjoyment of the land should govern fact-findings and rulings of the circuit court. If this standard is satisfied, the government has taken an easement without paying just compensation. The Wisconsin Supreme Court declared that the circuit court had erred in applying a regulatory taking standard, and that the case must be remanded to them to apply this correct Causby standard.

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