Start Skydiving files federal lawsuit against Middletown, city staff

Start Skydiving in Middletown.

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Start Skydiving in Middletown.

The long-running dispute between Start Skydiving and the city of Middletown has now escalated into federal court.

Start Skydiving, which operates at Middletown Regional Airport, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Thursday against the city, Matt Eisenbraun, assistant economic development director who oversees the airport, and Dan Dickten, former airport manager.

Start said that “this case is about the ongoing vindictive, corrupt, and deceitful attempts by the City and its key personnel to kick Start out of the airport and to harm its business, despite Start’s 20-year lease at the airport which runs through 2029.”

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In the lawsuit, Start alleges city personnel:

  • Hacked into Start’s online financial database to spy on Start and steal its business data in violation of Start’s civil rights under federal law
  • Violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
  • Spread false and defamatory statements about Start’s operations, designed to undermine Start in the community
  • Trumped up claims of unsafe operations by Start that were not true while not doing a property safety analysis.
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Start also alleges the city failed to follow through on its property improvement obligations in the 20-year lease. After leadership changed, the city began plotting to remove Start from the airport and developed a new Master Plan that did not include Start, the lawsuit says.

Start alleges the city failed to honor its lease and is trying to force Start off the airport with unreasonable new demands.

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The company is seeking $75,000 or more in compensatory damages, among other requests.

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Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick declined comment. Eisenbraun also declined comment, and Dickten could not be reached.

Middletown police investigated claims of a data breach of Start servers after Start officials filed a complaint in the fall. Because current and former city employees were allegedly involved, police requested the internal investigation be reviewed by Steve Runge, Franklin city prosecutor. That review is ongoing.

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For the past few years, the city and Start Skydiving have been embroiled in a dispute concerning issues with the hangar lease and the city’s move of the skydiving landing zone at the airport in May.

Since then, Start Skydiving has made a number of allegations against the city in its efforts to operate the airport. The dispute delayed the city’s efforts to complete the Airport’s Master Plan and Layout Plan because the parachute landing zone issue was not resolved. Start also served as the city airport’s operator until Dec. 31, 2019, when the city non-renewed the contract.

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John Hart II, co-owner of Start Skydiving, said the new drop zone was unsafe. He has also threatened to move the business to a new location.

In the landing zone move, there was conflict between the FAA’s Flight Standards Office and Airport District Office, which saw the controversy between the city and Start from different perspectives.

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The FAA guidance announced a compromise Aug. 21 placing the landing zone in the same area that the city decided in May but allowed those with a “D” license, or the very experienced skydivers, to land between their hangar and taxiway.

Since Palenick arrived in July, he and Start Skydiving have been trying to resolve the hangar dispute and other issues raised by Start. There has been no resolution.

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