City Council voted Friday to close a loophole in the City Charter that had allowed for one of the odder legal battles in recent history. By a 5-1 margin, council decided to bring the city’s air-rights definitions into conformance with state and federal standards.
For years, the city’s disinclination to define where a property owner’s air rights end allowed – theoretically, it was thought – for a building of infinite height. City Hall watchers put the curious loophole up there with anachronistic laws regarding what time cows have to vacate downtown and which compass direction the city’s clock keeper must face while adjusting time pieces for daylight-saving time. One wag wrote in the 1970s, when the city was in the grip of soaring crime and unemployment, “Since we’ve gotten about as low as we can go, why not try to go equally as high? Come on, someone out there must want to build a skyscraper to the stars.”
But the issue gained material importance only three years ago when local car salesman Eddie “Stuff” Sullivan claimed ownership of infinite space directly above his dealership at Center Highway and Count Road. The issue first came to light during a special Zoning Commission hearing to discuss Sullivan’s plan to float a succession of hot-air balloons three miles above his Chrysler lot. Zoning officials were attempting to prevent the balloons from taking flight, citing air-traffic concerns.
But Sullivan’s bravura performance, the first of many, at that meeting led City Attorney Steven Stomache to advise the Zoning Commission that no language in the City Charter existed to prevent the auto huckster from going through with his balloon scheme. Said Sullivan that day, “The FAA can go hang. They can fly their damn planes around my balloons. I own that property outright, and I pay all appropriate taxes and fees on that land. It’s not my fault the fools who wrote the charter didn’t stipulate where my property ends in the air. This is my land, and it’s my cylinder of dominance. This area is zoned commercial, and my balloon plan goes part and parcel with my commercial venture.”
U.S. Attorney Mary Walters quickly brought suit against Sullivan, arguing that the federal government could stipulate where a property owner’s right to the air above his land ended. Sullivan, who represented himself in the case, found a sympathetic ear in Judge Willis Marshall III, a Bush administration appointee and avid defender of property owners’ rights. Marshall, in an opinion that held up in Appellate Court (the Supreme Court denied hearing the case), ruled that the federal government’s right to regulate interstate commerce applied horizontally, but not vertically. “The Constitution does not allow for the federal government to apply such onerous conditions that an individual property owner cannot make legal use of all physical space existent in, on, or over his property. This is a matter for state and local governments. If the City Charter does not see fit to cap how far up a property owner’s property can go, it is not the responsibility or business of the federal government to set that cap itself.”
Had Stuff Sullivan left his court victory at that, his balloons may still be flying today. But his legal victory inspired a bout of hubris that Icarus would have appreciated. It started quietly but queerly, when Sullivan’s sales staff would find him staring up at the sky above the dealership. When asked what he was looking at, Sullivan would say, “It’s mine. All of it is mine.”
Sullivan started to make national headlines after holding a press conference at which he declared that any portion of the universe that existed within his “cylinder of dominance” belonged to him. “Owing to the daily rotation of the Earth, and the suspected rotation of our galaxy as well as that of others, this means that I am part owner of everything in the universe. At some point during our trip around the sun, which is rightfully mine for a few minutes each day, most everything falls within my intergalactic bailiwick. This means that I, Stuff Sullivan, am legal owner of everything in the known universe and spaces unknown. I own everything above my dealership, right up to God’s doorstep. As such, I will pursue and defend my claims to all celestial bodies of worth. Further, I will proceed with demanding NASA and all other space programs properly compensate me for the time their vehicles spend within my property.”
“What about private satellites?” one reporter joked. “For cell phones and GPS?”
“Good point, son,” Sullivan said. “I’ll go after those folks too.”
Thus began Stuff Sullivan’s battle to assert dominance over his extraterrestrial domain, and also his undoing. At the height of his legal activity, Sullivan was suing 170 governments, space consortiums, businesses, and astronomical congresses. (In addition to lawsuits concerning aerospace fly-overs, Sullivan attempted to force astronomers to consult with him before naming newly discovered stars and galaxies.) Sales at his Chrysler dealership dropped, and friends and family privately questioned his sanity.
A series of events during the past month brought the story to a quick, suitably bizarre ending. First, DaimlerChrysler ended its relationship with Sullivan, citing concerns over embarrassing publicity. Sullivan brushed off this first setback, saying, “Chrysler can sit on a tack. Once I start winning a few of these cases, I’m gonna be rich for life. I’ll be buying Bill Gates lunch pretty soon.”
Then he started losing his cases. In a two-week period, Sullivan learned that all 170 of his lawsuits were either dismissed without a hearing or lost in a series of stinging summary judgments finding for the defendants. These setbacks crippled his nascent plans for converting his former dealership into an impenetrable, self-sustaining compound Sullivan was planning with CH2M Hill, the multinational engineering and construction giant.
Finally, after a debate that almost all downtown watchers deemed years too long, City Council finally decided to set air-rights standards that conformed to federal air-safety regulations. On a Friday afternoon, with a near-unanimous decision (pro-property-rights Council Member Mary Jane Hardackre was the lone holdout), council killed Stuff Sullivan’s claim to his “cylinder of dominance.”
A crowd of onlookers watched Saturday as Sullivan’s three-mile-high chain of hot-air balloons was lowered to the ground. Sullivan, suffering the ill effects of a man who has lost the universe in a month’s time, has not made himself available for public comment. But there were reports from various witnesses on Saturday of Sullivan shuffling around his property, staring up at the sky.
– C. Gaines