For 35 years, organizers of New Jersey’s biggest hot-air balloon festival have made preparations by lining up musical acts and getting ready to fill the skies over rolling hills and horse farms.
This year, they had to deal with the Secret Service.
The annual New Jersey Festival of Ballooning starts Friday near President Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf course and residence, where he has been spending some of his summer weekends.
Organizers began to plan for the possibility of flight restrictions and other security concerns late last year.
“Anytime you do an outdoor festival you have to have the theory for ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst,'” said Howard Freeman, executive producer of the event. “Preparing for a potential temporary flight restriction by the POTUS has enabled us to learn a lot more about preparation for that.”
Freeman said organizers have met with the Secret Service three times and they’ve been told they’ll be able to fly the balloons, even if the president was at his course about seven miles away.
There is a temporary flight restriction set up for the area around the golf course from Aug. 3 to 20, but there is no sign that Trump is heading to Bedminster this weekend, allowing organizers to breathe a sigh of relief.
If Trump were in town, the balloon pilots and riders would go through security screening run by the Transportation Security Administration and Secret Service, Freeman said. Some of the balloons also would carry transponders so that they could be tracked to make sure they’re not posing a threat.
While pilots have landed their balloons on the golf course in years past, Freeman said it will be considered off-limits this year, whether Trump is there or not.
Mark McKevitt, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Newark field office, said communication is the key to working with events like the balloon festival.
“We don’t want to shut it down if we can avoid it,” he said. “As long as we communicate with them and work out what they want to do, as long as it’s a safe platform for everyone involved.”
The flight restrictions for Trump’s visits have led to complaints for those who own and operate a group of small airports around the club. Two within 10 miles of the club aren’t allowed to have planes take off or land while Trump is in town, and those within 30 miles face restrictions.
“The most devastating part of it is that it essentially makes attracting new business impossible, because we can’t offer universal access to the airport,” said Thor Solberg, whose family owns the airport of the same name where the balloon festival takes place. “The future of the airport really depends on attracting new activity to the facility, which is really hard to sell when you can’t guarantee that the airport will be open all the time.”
Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, who represents the congressional district around the club, led a group of congressmen in a letter sent to the Secret Service last month asking for help “in lessening the economic and operational burden” from the flight restrictions when Trump is in town. The letter asks that the Secret Service implement the type of aviation security policies in place near Washington, D.C., which allows properly vetted private pilots to fly.
“President Trump has a long tradition in Bedminster,” Lance said. “It is a place that he enjoys visiting and I think that’s also true of Mrs. Trump and of the Trump family. And I want to try to be helpful to constituents, recognizing that the president enjoys the area.”
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