The Eagleswood Township Land Use Board is in a tough spot. The Eagles Nest Airport was jokingly deemed one of its best customers by the board. Yet at many hearings involving the airport, there has been negative commentary from the community. These complaints usually involve air traffic and the noise associated with it.
At its June 6 meeting, the board heard a site plan application for an existing skydiving drop zone. There has been some concern from the community concerning a skydiving enterprise at the airport, Skydive East Coast. Included in these concerns are traffic and noise, but also safety.
During the public discussion on the application, two residents raised concerns about Skydive East Coast. Resident Michelle Paccione, who appears to be the main voice against the skydiving business, attempted to air concerns of the community, including presenting a written statement by someone who was unable to attend. She also came with news articles, social media posts and images apparently depicting skydivers not jumping appropriately.
However, much of her testimony was deemed inadmissible – mostly due to hearsay.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t be satisfied with what everyone posted about you on Facebook,” planning board attorney Terry Brady said. “Facebook is not known to be a reliable and verifiable source of information.”
“So I can’t show you photos they’ve posted themselves,” Paccione replied.
“You don’t know that they took those photos,” Brady answered. “Who took the photo and when did they take them?”
Brady later took an opportunity to make a larger statement about public commentary regarding the airport at land use board meetings.
“What is before the board is not licensing or skydiving. That was done by somebody who is not on this board,” Brady explained. “This about of the use of the land you see, and the use of the land only – not the use of the air, not how they fly, not what they do up in the air. I’ve been through this a couple of times. The board does not have jurisdiction over that.
“We’re looking at the land and anything below the land,” Brady added. “Anything over the grass, the board kind of loses jurisdiction over.”
The board, however, did voice concerns during the meeting about skydiving being allowed at the airport.
“I still was amazed that they approved it so close to the Garden State Parkway,” board member Debra Rivas said, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Skydive East Coast owner George Voishnis took time to address community concerns.
“I have jumped all over the world, and this is one of the safer places,” Voishnis said.
He also added that he wants to improve the company’s reputation with the community.
Regarding the application for a drop zone, lawyer Howard Butensky, representing the airport, said the meeting was a continuation of an application partially heard for site plan approval for the skydiving facility at the airport.
“I won’t belabor the history,” Butensky said.
“There was consensus that while the use is permitted, it does require site plan approval,” he said. “This is purely site plan.”
The board wanted to know how the business would function.
Voishnis told the board that prospective divers come into the airport, watch a brief video, sign waivers and participate in a “small” training session with the divers. The divers then go up and do their jumps, he said. This whole process, he continued, lasts an hour at most. He claimed that this process adds four to five cars of traffic.
The board raised concerns about whether the present drop zone was approved. There was a discrepancy on whether the drop zone was an approved size. Brady read from a document that stated the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s regulation on drop zones. Citing the document, Brady said restricted drop zones must be at least 900 feet in diameter. The Eagle’ Nest Airport’s drop zone diameter is 370 feet. Voishnis said the department has already approved the drop zone size at Eagles Nest, though no one could immediately provide documentation of that.
Skydive East Coast’s hours of operation were also briefly a point of discussion.
“We are competing with places … that open at 7 a.m. or at sunrise. We will not do that,” Voishnis said.
Initially, Voishnis said the planned hours of operation would be 10 a.m. until sunset on business days and 8 a.m. until sunset on weekends. However, that changed.
“The only thing is Sunday morning. It’s the only day I don’t have to get up at 4:30,” Rivas said. “I could live with 8 a.m. on Saturday, but on Sunday – I’ll leave it to what the consensus of the board is.”
Board members concurred, agreeing with Skydive East Coast that Sunday hours would begin at 8 a.m., but weekday hours would begin at 9 a.m. Holiday hours would begin at 8 a.m.
Waste management also came up during the hearing. The original site plan for the airport stated that waste management would be executed by a private entity. In actuality, though, the township collects the trash. Airport owner Peter Weidhorn claimed that there was not a lot of trash produced.
The board approved the site plan based on several conditions. The board needs to receive documented proof the drop zone size was verified by the DOT, FAA and U.S. Parachute Association. Additionally, any approval would be subject to submitting an operations plan, and the airport must have proper waste management. Finally, every effort must be made to lessen noise.
At the end of the public discussion section, Paccione raised other questions.
“Do you have to approve this site plan?” she said. “Can you turn it down? Can you say, ‘No. We won’t approve this site plan. We don’t want a drop zone. We don’t think it’s a good idea for this to be here, and have people flying over the Parkway all the time’?”
Board member Kenneth Holman said the board could, but then the applicant could appeal. In this situation, a superior court can hear the application. Then, Holman said, the board could lose its jurisdiction if the applicant felt its decision was “ambiguous or biased.”
“We’ve lost jurisdiction and things were granted that we didn’t want,” Holman added. “There were a couple of developments here in town that happened to. We don’t like losing that.”
The application was approved unanimously.