Santa Monica takes first steps towards closing airport

The Santa Monica City Council has shortened ground leases for tenants at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO), limiting most businesses to month-to-month leases.

Exceptions were FBO Atlantic Aviation, Adelman, a law firm, and the Museum of Flying, which received three-year leases to June 30, 2018, with the option of one-year extensions at the discretion of the city.

The lease restrictions were part of a series of recommendations adopted by the Santa Monica City Council at its March 25 meeting as the city aims to phase out operations at the airport, eventually closing it.

One of the recommendations was the inclusion of a clause in each lease that the city “preserves its rights to close the airport” if it is determined that the city has the legal authority to close the airport before the leases are up.

In addition, the city will reduce or eliminate aviation uses on the airport’s non-aviation parcels and begin implementing recreational uses on those parcels within three years. Those plans will begin with the conversion of 12 acres currently used for aircraft tie-down space into parkland. The aircraft currently located on those 12 acres will be relocated to other spaces on the airport, according to city officials.

The city’s actions are in response to the passage of Measure LC in November 2014, which returns control of most of the 227-acre airport to the city of Santa Monica on July 1. That’s the date the city maintains is the expiration of a 1984 agreement between the city and FAA.

For several decades the city has explored the idea of closing the airport and redeveloping the land.

But the closure has to be approved by the FAA and that is unlikely as the agency maintains a 1948 Instrument of Transfer that took the airport out of federal hands and made the city the airport sponsor stipulates the property remain an airport in perpetuity.

The airport was built in the 1920s. During World War II it was the home of the Douglas Aircraft Co. Douglas kept its headquarters at KSMO until 1958, when the city refused to lengthen the runway to accommodate the newly developed DC-8 jet. Douglas moved aircraft production to Long Beach and KSMO became a general aviation facility.

The airport, with its 4,973-foot runway, is a reliever for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). It has a control tower and is the home of several small businesses.

More than 100 people attended the March 25 meeting. Several speakers cited concerns over pollution, noise and safety as reasons for closing the facility. Many brought up the March 5 crash of actor Harrison Ford, who experienced engine trouble shortly after takeoff in a fully-restored Ryan PT-22. Ford attempted to return to the airport, but came up short and made a hard landing on the golf course that borders the airport. Opponents used his crash as proof the airport is a safety hazard to the community.

In the days prior to the meeting, social media and airport support and anti-airport websites blew up with requests to their members to attend the council meeting to testify.

One of those who attended the meeting was the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s John Morrison.

“Approving month-to-month leases for airport businesses only adds to the uncertainty that the council seems intent on creating at the airport, and calls into question its agreement with the FAA to maintain the airport as a viable entity,” he said. “Driving aircraft and aviation businesses away from the airport would seem to violate the spirit of that agreement.”

There are several community groups that want the land to be converted to recreational open space. That is unlikely to happen, noted Morrison, because the city needs the tax revenue that the businesses at the airport bring in.

“The city council’s action is a reckless de facto tax increase on the city’s residents,” he continued. “It will shutter small businesses, eliminate jobs and hurt families all because a vocal minority in the community do not appreciate the value the airport brings to the city and the region.”

However, Kevin McKeown, the mayor of Santa Monica, described the council’s actions as “balancing multiple interests while retaining focus on safety and air quality.”

“The council has taken responsible next steps to protect our community and retain maximum flexibility, as mandated by Santa Monica voters last November with the passage of Measure LC,” he added.

Joe Justice, the owner of Justice Aviation, a flight school based at the airport, suggests the city’s actions will be a wake-up call to the aviation community.

“This is the first time the city council has actually made a decision that is a forward motion toward closing the airport,” he said. “In the past, the city has voted for studies and thrown around a lot of rhetoric about closing the airport, but the votes to limit leases is the first clear indication of their intentions to close the airport.”

Justice hopes that the city’s action will galvanize the FAA into more aggressive action to protect the airport.

“In the 1948 Instrument of Transfer there is a clause that if the city doesn’t want to operate the airport any more, the federal government can take the land back,” said Justice. “I hope the FAA sends the city a letter of warning telling them not to take action that impedes on the airport.”