HARRISBURG - An airport authority isn’t entitled to its preliminary objections in a lawsuit filed after a couple claimed planes flew too close to their property, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania determined on Oct. 15.
The court affirmed the ruling of the Monroe County Common Pleas Court that overruled the Airport Authority’s preliminary objections to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The Airport Authority raised four major concerns in its appeal: if the trial court’s factual findings are backed by evidence; if the plaintiffs gave enough prima facie evidence of a de facto taking; if the Airport Authority gave enough evidence to challenge the de facto taking; and if the trial court didn’t appropriately interpret how far the taking went. The Commonwealth Court evaluated each of these points and affirmed the lower court’s decision.
Wladyslaw Gabrys and Natalia Gabrys sued the Airport Authority, requesting just compensation for the Airport Authority’s de facto taking of their residential property. Their home is right next to Runway 13 of the Airport Authority.
The property has experienced multiple planes flying at low altitudes ever since the runway expanded in 2010. Wladyslaw Gabrys said it’s not unusual for 20 to 70 planes and helicopters to travel near the property each day. It was also noted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says noises in a residential property shouldn’t exceed 65 decibels. The average noise levels for one of the locations is 80 decibels.
The Airport Authority responded to the lawsuit with preliminary objections, which the trial court overruled, stating the Airport Authority had caused a de facto taking of the property. The Airport Authority then appealed in the current court.
In the appeal, the Airport Authority said the trial court’s findings aren’t backed by evidence. Some of those findings include the notion that a two-engine jet regular lands on the runway in the middle of the night; that lights on the airport for jets brighten up the area in the middle of the night; and that the property is just within 200 feet of the maintained portion of the runway.
Considering Wladyslaw Gabrys said it’s not unusual for aircraft to fly near the property at 2:30 and 3:30 in the morning, and their daughter said she’s often awakened by a jet at 3 in the morning, along with Airport Authority board member saying the airport is open all night, the Commonwealth Court determined this was enough to back the trial court’s findings.
The Commonwealth Court also rebutted the Airport Authority’s claim that the couple didn’t give prima facie evidence of a de facto taking. In fact, the Airport Authority said it provided enough proof to challenge the de facto taking allegation. The appeals court pointed out since the testimony held at the trial court backs substantial evidence of its findings, it wouldn’t interrupt it now. The Commonwealth Court determined the plaintiffs gave enough evidence for their de facto taking claim, and the Airport Authority didn’t sufficiently challenge it.
For its last point of appeal, the Airport Authority said the lower court didn’t property understand the length of the taking.
“By determining that the Gabrys have been substantially deprived of the beneficial use and enjoyment of their property by the landing and taking off of aircraft from the Airport Authority’s Runway 13, the trial court found a de facto taking of an air easement over the property,” the appeals court determined, backing the trial court’s ruling.
Judge Anne Covey authored the opinion.