Future of Santa Monica Airport on the November ballot

SantaMonica AirportTwo opposing measures to decide the future of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) in southern California will appear on the city ballot in November. The ballot is the latest weapon in what has become a contentious battle over the future of the airport.

Measure D stipulates that voter approval will be required before the airport can be closed or redeveloped. A second measure, LC, will allow the Santa Monica City Council to make decisions about closing the airport and redevelopment without voter approval.

Established in 1917, the airport was the home of the Douglas Aircraft factory during World War II. In 1948, the federal government declared the airport surplus property and gave it to the city of Santa Monica through an Instrument of Transfer. Part of the deal is that the property remain an airport in perpetuity.

Today, SMO covers 227 acres and is surrounded by homes and businesses. A reliever airport for LAX, SMO has a control tower and a single 4,973-foot runway.

Over the years there have been complaints about air traffic, noise and pollution, as well as concerns about safety from the people who live near the airport. The complaints and concerns have fostered a desire to close the airport and redevelop the land.

Since 1948 the city has received millions of dollars in federal Airport Improvement Program grants. The grants require that the airport remain in operation until the grant has been amortized — usually at least 20 years from the date the grant is accepted. If the sponsor tries to close the airport before the grant obligations have timed out, it must pay back those funds. The lack of money to pay back a grant is usually a large deterrent for most sponsors when the topic of airport closure arises. Additionally, an airport cannot be legally closed without FAA approval.

The FAA has stated repeatedly that it will not approve closing SMO, citing the perpetuity clause in the Instrument of Transfer. In addition, FAA officials note the city is obligated to keep the airport open through 2023 because of grant assurances.

Santa Monica officials contend the grant assurances obligation ends in 2015, with the timing out of various agreements and a 1984 court settlement with the federal government.

In October 2013 the Santa Monica City Council filed a lawsuit in federal court to gain control of the airport in order to close it. The city council asked the court to allow the city to use the airport property as it sees fit, including alternative uses. The city also asked the court to declare that it held clear title to the land, and challenged the FAA’s assertion the property must remain an airport in perpetuity.

On Feb.13, 2014, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit. In his decision Judge John Walter wrote that the city either knew, or should have known, that the federal government claimed an interest in the airport property as long ago as 1948 and, as a result, the statute of limitations for the city to claim title to the airport had expired. He ruled that the United States government claimed a clear interest in the airport property and has never abandoned that interest.

Despite the judge’s ruling, tenants at SMO are still wary of attempts to close the airport. In July tenants filed a complaint with the FAA to prevent the closure of the airport. The tenants assert that the adding of $240,600 to a $1.6 million federal grant in 2003 pushed back the closure date until at least 2023, not 2015 as the city alleges.

The FAA response to the July complaint was a repeat of its position that the airport must remain open in perpetuity.

Most of the tenants contacted by General Aviation News for this story declined to be interviewed.

That’s not surprising, said Bill Dunn, AOPA Vice President of Airports, who has spent several years defending SMO. He has attended many City Council meetings and public hearings about the airport.

“All the leases expire next year,” he said. “Everything from tie-down spaces to hangars, FBOs, master leases and restaurants is up for renewal. No one wants to say anything negative about the city because it could come back to haunt them when they try to renew their lease.”

According to Dunn, the City Council’s attitude toward the businesses at the airport has come across as anti-airport because initially the city offered lease renewals of just one year.

“How do you make a capital investment in a business when your lease is just for one year?” he asks.

After some negotiation, the city decided to expand the business leases to three years.

In the meantime, the pro-airport contingent is trying to convince the voters that the airport is good for the community, and its closure could bring more traffic congestion and unwanted high-density development to the area.

“We could talk ourselves blue in the face with people who can’t relate to the joy we get from flying, but we may as well be speaking another language,” said Joe Justice, the owner of Justice Aviation, one of the business based at SMO. “But they who are stuck in traffic every evening understand not making it worse. Federal laws that limit the height of buildings in close proximity to an airport have kept a cap on the size of buildings in close proximity to the airport and the neighbors of the airport have not been aware of that protection.”

Some people in favor of closing the airport want the property to be turned into a public park to preserve the open space. Dunn says that is highly unlikely.

“The city can’t afford to develop it as a park and maintain it as a park,” he said. “The city can’t afford the land to be low density anything. They have to generate tax revenue. If the airport closes, they will have to find a whole lot of tax revenue to put back into the local economy to make up for what is lost by closing the airport.”

The idea that closing SMO would mean a reduction in air traffic, pollution, and noise also has been countered, said Dunn.

“At a city council meeting in April 2013, a United Airlines captain testified if the Santa Monica Airport closed, the airspace could become a corridor for aircraft heading to Los Angeles International Airport. He addressed the council in full uniform,” said Dunn. “He told the city officials that if the airport goes away and the airspace is released, instead of having small 2,300-pound and 4,000-pound airplanes going overhead, there will be 500,000-pound commercial airliners going overhead trying to get to LAX faster to save money.”

The election will be held Nov. 4.

For more information: smgov.net/departments/airport