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Court mulls whose rules govern private helicopter landing sites

Massachusetts’ top court had to decide – whose rules rule private helicopter landing sites.  In Roma III v Board of Appeals of Rockport SJC 12278 (20018), the town of Rockport’s zoning rule required people wanting to set up private heliports on land in town, to get a special permit.  The landowner had a house on 1.6 acres of waterfront land.  The case describes how the landowner traveled to his activities in a helicopter “regularly”.

The Federal Aviation Administration recognized the place as a private heliport. The town building inspector however, cited the landowning pilot for a non-allowed use in a residential zone. Supporting its inspector, the Town argued that anything not expressly permitted is prohibited. The lower court ruled that the Town lacked authority to impose its rules on private landing spots, citing an old case focused on localities trying to regulate the operation of aircraft.

The Supreme Judicial Court reasoned that cities and towns have been given broad authority from the Legislature to regulate the use of land through zoning.

The broad grant is the rule – the limits are the exception.

Lawmakers’ intended to allow cities and towns leeway to impose all land use rules (except unconstitutional ones).   Private landing strips are not customarily incidental to primarily residential uses. By this decision town zoning can regulate them.

Just because there was a branch of State government with general supervision and control over aeronautics, where that branch expressed no clear intent to prevent other, local rules for “aeronautics”, local zoners can regulate the places for landing non-commercial helicopters.

Can zoning zap drones by extension? Some other case will have to determine.

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Charles W. Cobb

Attorney at Law


320 Nevada Street Ste 301,

Newton MA 02460




(978) 979-1223

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