Helipad battle coming in for court landing

Ask West Long Branch Zoning Officer Jerome Donlon to sum up what’s at issue in the impending trial of the West Long Branch helipad and he’ll tell you it’s a case of "they call it charter, I call it commuter."

Donlon wasn’t being smug when he made the comment. He was saying what he has maintained to be the truth of the matter from the onset of the controversy. The owners of the helipad think its use is in conformity with appropriate municipal law as an accessory to a permitted use — just an occasionally used pad for now-and-then charter flights.

Donlon said the helipad is a not an accessory, but an unpermitted use — a commuter helistop with regular frequent flights. A large contingent of Oceanport residents, and other neighbors of the stop whose tranquil neighborhood path it’s flown over, agree with Donlon and can’t wait to say so in court on Dec. 21.

After enduring what they’ve called two summers’ worth of helipad hell, several summonses, one court date postponement, and an initial court appearance without trial, the anti-helistop cohorts hope they’ll finally have their chance to testify against the West Long Branch helipad at Monmouth Park Corporate Center.

Now it’s all a matter of whether the court date sticks and/or witnesses are available, considering its proximity to the holidays. Still, the case has yet to be officially presented, but when it is, Donlon has an idea of what will happen because of what’s transpired over the months.

At the first court appearance on Oct. 5, Christopher Hanlon, attorney for helipad owners Carl P. Gross and Henry Bloom, entered their plea of not guilty. As far as Donlon knows, they will attempt to prove that the helipad at Monmouth Park Corporate Center is a permitted accessory use. Donlon received a discovery evidence package from Hanlon, Bloom and Gross dated Nov. 6.

In that package were names of witnesses who would attest to the fact, in one way or another, that the pad had been operational in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. Some are former employees of the corporate center, some former helicopter charter pilots and one who even conducted altimeter tests back in the ’50s to determine how high or low helicopters were flying then.

Donlon surmised that the discovery material was an attempt to justify the pad’s current use by calling past use to the forefront and saying past and present uses were one and the same and legitimate. Donlon said past and present uses are not the same at all and that is the basis for the borough case. He says that while the helipad may have been legally used as a permitted accessory (use) with charter chopper flights in and out occasionally, it wasn’t until recent years that the pad was clearly used as a commuter "helistop." To Donlon, "The mere fact that something exists doesn’t make it right or legal now, then or ever."

Donlon added that helistop attorney Hanlon even requested copies of West Long Branch’s land use ordinance dating back to 1931, which he felt was yet an another attempt by the defense to justify present use with past practice. "I don’t think they’re going to find a helicopter commuter service as a permitted use in 1931," he said.

After Donlon received the discovery package, the helipad owners’ representatives sent him a letter dated Nov. 10, asking if he had changed his position in light of the "new information that perhaps (you) weren’t aware of." Donlon’s answer: "No."

"The bottom line, though, is that in court a decision has to be made on whether the commuter helistop is a permitted or legal use," he concluded.

There will be seven residents from Oceanport and one from West Long Branch testifying against the helipad’s use as a commuter stop for the past two years, in particular, summers. Testifying for both sides will be Charles Komar, a principal and pilot with Broadcast Helicopters, one of the helicopter companies flying in and out of the pad. Also testifying for defense and plaintiff will be Bart Ritoro, aeronautical operations specialist with the DOT’s Division of Aeronautics.

As far as Oceanport Mayor Gordon Gemma is concerned, "Regardless of agreements, resolutions or trials, the proof will be in what happens next summer. Hopefully, all of the restrictive and/or prohibitive credos will be enacted in earnest — I have no reason yet to believe they won’t — and Oceanport residents will have a peaceful summer of 2001."

— Elaine Van Develde