The Federal Aviation Administration ruled Friday that Santa Monica Airport must stay open at least until 2023 — a decision that could frustrate the city’s efforts to reduce flight operations and then shut down the historic facility in the near future.
Santa Monica elected officials and anti-airport activists insist that the airport can be closed well before 2023 because, they say, all obligations to the federal government already have expired. Some have even claimed it could have been shuttered earlier this year, ending what they contend are the airport’s noise, pollution and safety hazards.
But the FAA’s decision says that provisions of a $240,600 federal improvement grant received by the city in 2003 require that the general aviation hub remain open 20 years after accepting the money.
The ruling could set the stage for several rounds of appeals to the FAA as well as federal lawsuits that could determine the fate of the airport, which was once home to Douglas Aircraft Co. and used by the U.S. government during World War II. Today, almost 270 civilian aircraft are based there, including those of actors Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise. More than 300 takeoffs and landings take place daily.
“I am gratified to hear the news. They ruled as I expected,” said John Jerabek, a board member of the Santa Monica Airport Assn., a group of pilots, airport tenants and plane owners who want to keep the facility open. “It just shows that the city has to keep the promises it has made to the nation after World War II.”
The decision stems from a complaint filed with the FAA in July 2014 by Ford, other airport tenants and national aviation groups that want to keep the airport open, such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. and the National Business Aviation Assn.
The group argued that the August 2003 grant extended the expiration date of a previous grant from June 2014 to August 2023. Grant terms usually expire after 20 years.
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Their complaint set in motion an administrative process in which both sides presented evidence to Byron K. Huffman, acting director of the FAA’s Office of Airport Compliance. The city now has 30 days to appeal Huffman’s decision within the FAA. Any final ruling by the agency can be appealed in federal court.
The city contended that the grant requirements expired on June 29, 2014, 20 years after the original $1.6-million grant was received. In effect, the additional $240,600 was simply an amendment to the original grant and did impose any new terms, the city said.
Santa Monica Deputy City Atty. Ivan Campbell, who handles airport matters, declined to comment on the decision, saying he has not yet met with city officials to discuss the ruling or whether to appeal the decision.
Mayor Kevin McKeown said, however, that the ruling means the city must appeal to the agency for additional hearings and endure more delays before “we can get the matter fairly adjudicated outside of the FAA’s own tightly controlled administrative processes.”
“Unending bureaucratic review is no answer to Santa Monica’s immediate safety and pollution concerns regarding the airport and the land we own,” McKeown added.
Attorney Richard Simon, who represents the airport tenants and national groups, said the ruling could slow the city’s so-called starvation strategy for the airport that includes proposals to reduce the size of the runway, scale back flight operations, limit fuel sales, eliminate flight schools and regulate exhaust emissions from aircraft.
“We will keep our eyes on this matter very, very closely,” Simon said.
Frank Gruber, an anti-airport activist and advocate of turning the airport into a park, said the ruling is not a setback for the effort to close the airport but an important step to get the matter into federal court, where the dispute can finally be resolved.
Huffman’s decision also is a rejection of the positions of Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who have been urging the FAA to allow the city to shut down the airport.
“I am extremely disappointed the FAA decided to rule against the city of Santa Monica,” Lieu said. The grant “clearly stated that the city’s obligations ended 20 years after the grant’s enactment in 1994, meaning it should have expired in 2014. The FAA has overreached in forcing its will onto the city of Santa Monica, and my constituents deserve better.”