If your plans for the upcoming weekend include building a heliport in your backyard, I have terrible news for you: the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that, pursuant to their zoning powers, municipalities may prevent construction of private, non-commercial heliports.

The decision in Roma, III, Ltd. v. Board of Appeals of Rockport,[1] ends a dispute between a local helicopter pilot and the Town of Rockport that started in November 2014.  At that time, the building inspector issued an enforcement order finding that a heliport was not permitted without a variance or special-use permit.  The Board of Appeals unanimously affirmed the enforcement order.

The pilot appealed to the Land Court, where the judge ruled in the property owner’s favor, stating a zoning bylaw prohibiting a private landowner from creating a noncommercial, private heliport on his or her property is void unless the Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division approved the zoning bylaw in advance.  Despite ruling for the pilot, the Land Court judge noted that the Appeals Court precedent which controlled the case “may merit revisiting.”[2]

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed and took Rockport’s appeal on direct appellate review to answer the pressing question of whether municipalities may limit the use of land within the community as a noncommercial, private heliport, or if any such zoning laws require preapproval from the Aeronautics Division.

The SJC decision first disposed of the Appeals Court precedent that required the Land Court’s decision in the pilot’s favor.  The Appeals Court’s now-abrogated ruling from Hanlon v. Sheffield held that section 39B of the state aeronautics code was the only source of municipal authority to limit construction of heliports, and therefore, section 39B’s requirement that the Aeronautics Division approve such local rules before they become effective applied to Rockport’s zoning bylaw.[3]  The SJC clarified that a municipality’s authority to regulate the construction and placement of a heliport did not emanate from section 39B, but rather from a municipality’s long-held zoning powers.  Therefore, section 39B’s requirement for approval from the Aeronautics Division did not apply to a noncommercial, private heliport in a resident’s backyard.

The remaining issue for the SJC was whether federal or state law prohibits municipalities from exercising their zoning authority to prohibit construction of heliports.  Following a detailed discussion, the Court ruled that neither the federal nor the state preemption doctrines prevent zoning bylaws from restricting construction of heliports, and therefore, municipalities in Massachusetts have the power to limit or prevent the construction of private, noncommercial heliports in backyards across the Commonwealth.  Therefore, residents who were planning to add a heliport to their properties will need to develop new plans for their transportation needs.

[1] No. SJC-12278 (Jan. 8, 2018)
[2] Roma, III, Ltd. v. Christopher, Mass. Land Ct., No. 15 MISC 000074 RBF (Oct. 19, 2016)
[3] 89 Mass App. Ct. 392 (2016)