Living next door to an active public-use airport can lead to legal disputes beyond the obvious noise, vibration, and safety considerations. As a client of Westbrook Law discovered, interactions between airports and their neighbors can include demands by the airport that neighboring property owners cut their trees or otherwise alter their property for the benefit of the airport users. When our client, Suzanne Yopek, refused to allow the Brighton Airport Association to cut down several 100-plus-year-old pin oak trees on her land, the association sued her, claiming her trees constituted a “public nuisance” under the Michigan Aeronautics Code. At the heart of BAA’s claim was that Yopek’s trees had allegedly grown into an “approach protection area,” defined by state (Michigan Aeronautics Commission) and federal (FAA) regulations, that extends outward and upward from the end of BAA’s runway. What BAA failed to acknowledge was that it had extended its runway hundreds of feet toward Yopek’s land–creating the very problem it complained of–and further was out of compliance with an ordinance requiring BAA to own the approach protection area.
The Livingston County Circuit Court determined that although Yopek’s trees did not encroach on a smaller state-defined protection area, they did encroach on the larger, FAA-defined approach area and thus constituted public nuisances that must be abated. The trial court failed to consider whether BAA itself created any encroachments. We appealed.
In a newly-released published decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s conclusion that FAA regulations are enforceable under Michigan’s public nuisance statute, finding that only encroachments of the state-defined approach areas could give rise to a public nuisance claim. The Court of Appeals also criticized the lower court’s failure to consider whether BAA’s actions in extending the runway and operating in violation of township ordinances barred its claim. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
Public airports wield outsized power, influence, and regulatory backing compared to their neighboring property owners. However, their reach is not unlimited. As the Court of Appeals decision demonstrates, individual property rights matter, even when your neighbor has a runway.