CHATHAM — Its prohibition of skydiving at the airport is creating more legal turbulence for the town of Chatham.
Skydive Cape Cod, which ran excursions from the Chatham airport for three years before the town shut down the operation, has filed suit against the town seeking $100,000 in damages for lost business.
The town is already feeling the squeeze from both sides of the skydiving debate. It is preparing to go to trial in a civil suit filed by skydive opponents organized as the Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport, even as it is under order by the FAA to allow skydiving to resume as a permitted general aviation activity.
In January 2016, Barnstable attorney Robert Lawless notified the town of his intention to sue on behalf of Jimmy Mendonca, the owner of Skydive Cape Cod, seeking $100,000 in damages. By statute, the town has six months to either deny the claim or try to negotiate a settlement, and on Jan. 5, 2017, almost a year to the date after the notification, the suit was filed in Barnstable Superior Court.
In the suit, Lawless alleges that the town's signing of federal grant assurances in return for FAA airport funding over the past decade does not allow it to discriminate against skydiving, which is a federally protected activity. Skydive Cape Cod operated at the airport from 2010 to 2013 under two sub-management agreements with airport manager Cape Cod Flying Circus. But while the airport commission approved a third agreement in January 2014, Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith declined to sign it at the direction of the board of selectmen. Lawless claims that the section of the agreement between the town and Cape Cod Flying Circus that requires that the town manager approve sub-management agreements is invalid, citing a November 2014 letter from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
“The town manager's refusal to sign the contract was the product of a local group of residents who complained about the noise of planes taking off and landing at the airport more frequently than in the past,” Lawless wrote. “Noise and noise abatement are regulated by the FAA and the town is proscribed from limiting airport activity because of noise by federal regulations.” Once the noise issue was shot down by the FAA, he continued, the group began to claim skydiving was unsafe.
As evidence for that claim, the Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport cite the emergency landing of a skydive airplane in Lovers Lake in 2012 after it ran out of fuel and cases where skydivers landed outside the airport or were injured on landing.
“As a result of local political pressure the Town Manager refused to sign the contract,” Lawless wrote in his notification to the town. “Such refusal is specifically recognized by the FAA as a discriminatory practice. The Chatham Airport is a federally funded public airport and, as such, cannot restrict certain activities such as skydiving in this manner,” he wrote.
Lawless did not return telephone messages left by The Chronicle, and Chatham Town Counsel Patrick Costello did not reply to a request for comment. The town has until May 5 to reply to the suit.
Of the five selectmen named as defendants in the litigation, only one, Jeffrey Dykens, remains in office. Len Sussman, Florence Seldin, Sean Summers and Tim Roper have all concluded their terms, and Roper is deceased. The suit also names Goldsmith, individually and in her role as town manager.
The four-count suit alleges that the town breached and interfered with its contracts with Cape Cod Flying Circus and Skydive Cape Cod, and further that it violated Mendonca's civil rights by denying him the ability to establish a business protected by federal law.