ROCKPORT — Private heliports may fly in Florida, where ostentatious displays of wealth are a proud part of the cultural landscape. But stodgy New England towns are another matter.
And that’s not good news for Ron Roma, a Tampa businessman who was told by Massachusetts’ highest court this month that he cannot land his chopper on the lawn of his sprawling seaside home in Rockport, a small Cape Ann fishing village known for its rocky shoreline, weathered shingled houses, and historic community of painters and artisans.
Roma, who sued Rockport after it ordered him to stop landing his helicopter at his house, said he was not surprised that he lost his case in the Supreme Judicial Court because “it’s Massachusetts.”
Town officials hailed the court ruling as a victory for residents who want to prevent Rockport from turning into another seaside vacation town jammed with affluent newcomers who show little regard for the community’s small-town charm.
“Rockport has a character that it has been trying to protect, and people who move into town and, in a sense, try to change the character of the town are not looked on favorably,” said Herman Lilja, chairman of the Rockport Planning Board. “And having helicopters coming and going over Sandy Bay is not what the members of the town would consider ideal or necessary.”
The bad blood between Roma and the town began even before his helicopter entered the scene.
Residents vigorously objected to Roma’s plans for his property in 2013, after Roma bought two lots of coastal land on Granite Street for $2 million and proposed building a 10,800-square-foot brick house — his second home on that street. Locals argued the scale and material were not in keeping with Rockport’s classic style of small wood-clad homes.
“It looked like a fire department or a library,” said Jane Montecalvo, a neighbor and member of a group called Preserve Rockport.
Relations worsened the following year, when Roma landed his helicopter on the lawn of the 1.6-acre property where he was building his new home, so he could meet with representatives from the company manufacturing the steel beams for the house. Roma flew in over the ocean, but neighbors complained, and Alice Whittaker, a neighbor, came out of her house and snapped a photo of the helicopter that ran in the Gloucester Times.
Whittaker said she was concerned about the potential for an accident in the neighborhood, known as Pigeon Cove, which has a busy two-lane road and tourists staying at the Yankee Clipper Inn, a 1929 art deco mansion.
“It’s not the place to have a helicopter,” Whittaker said. “It’s ridiculous. And from a safety point of view, it’s a disaster.”
In November 2014, 10 days after Roma’s landing, Rockport building inspector Paul Orlando ordered Roma to stop landing his helicopter on his property or face fines of $300 a day.
Roma appealed to the Rockport Board of Appeals. He had reason to believe he was on solid legal ground. While building his home, Roma had received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use his property as a private heliport. And in the 1970s, F. Lee Bailey, the famed defense attorney, was known to land his chopper in Rockport while vacationing here.
But the town pointed out that its zoning codes do not mention heliports. They are therefore not allowed on private property, officials argued.
After the Rockport Board of Appeals unanimously rejected Roma’s appeal, Roma took his case to the state Land Court, where he won. Rockport then appealed to the state’s high court.
In court, Roma’s attorney, Nicholas Shapiro, rejected Rockport’s claim that its zoning codes ban heliports.
Shapiro contended that any such ban involving heliports would have to be approved by the state department of transportation’s Division of Aeronautics, which oversees airports.
Shapiro also argued that all the clamoring about Roma’s helicopter disrupting Rockport’s tranquil way of life was overblown.
“It was almost cataclysmic what people thought would happen if this use were allowed to continue,” Shapiro said. “He just wanted to have the flexibility to be able to land on his property, intermittently, when it was reasonably necessary.”
But the Supreme Judicial Court sided with the town on Jan. 8.
In a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants, the court ruled that local officials can ban private heliports.
If city and town officials had to get approval from the state Division of Aeronautics every time they wanted to stop a heliport, Gants wrote, they would be “unable to ensure that their residents will be adequately protected from these harms and nuisances.”
Roma insisted he was not upset about the court ruling, saying, “It’s not frustrating for me at all. It’s a non-issue.”
He also said he did not regret his three-year legal battle against the town.
“If I lived my life not doing everything people told me I couldn’t do, I would have had a different life,” said Roma, a health care technology executive who owns several homes, airplanes, and two helicopters, an MD 530 and an Agusta Bell 206 purchased from the Italian military.
Roma could pursue several outstanding claims still pending before the Land Court, but that might be a long shot after the high-court defeat. Shapiro said the ruling, for now, prohibits Roma from landing on his lawn.
“This decision tolls the death knell for accessory landing areas throughout the Commonwealth,” Shapiro said, adding there may be “scores” of these private heliports in Eastern Massachusetts. “For the most part, it means if you want to own some kind of aircraft, you’re probably going to need hangar space in the airport.”
Roma has a hangar in Beverly Airport, about 20 miles away, and can still get to his vacation home the old-fashioned way — with the “vehicular access” to his property, Shapiro said.
“He can still get to the area with his helicopter,” he said. “He just can’t get to his home, presently.”Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.