In the battle to close Santa Monica Airport, the federal government on Friday requested that the city’s lawsuit to gain control of the historic facility be dismissed.
Santa Monica officials sued in October, challenging the constitutionality of a 1948 agreement that transferred ownership of the property and its 5,000-foot runway from the federal government back to the city after World War II on the condition it remain an airport.
Filed in U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles, the city is seeking a declaration that it has clear title to the 227 acres that contain the oldest continuously operating airport in the county. Supporters of closing the facility hope a favorable decision will clear the way for a new park.
Government attorneys, however, argue that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the city filed it too late. They contend that federal law related to title disputes required Santa Monica to sue within 12 years of learning about the federal government’s interest in the airport.
According to the motion, the 1948 transfer agreement, which was signed by city officials, documents that interest — something that was demonstrated three more times in 1952, 1956 and 1984 when the government released three airport parcels from required aviation uses.
“Consequently, this case is jurisdictionally deficient because it was brought too late,” wrote attorneys for the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Justice.
They further assert that the 1944 Surplus Property Act, which was used to return the airport to the city, is constitutional. Passed by Congress and later amended in 1947, it authorizes the conveyance of surplus federal property to meet the needs of the federal government, including the preservation of airports for national defense and the development of civilian aviation.
The motion notes that in 1962 and 1975, the Santa Monica city attorney and the California attorney general respectively reviewed the legality of the transfer agreement and concluded that the city could not close the airport unless the federal government approved.
The lawsuit, like the city’s constant attempts to close the facility or restrict its operations, has attracted the attention of the local aviation community and national organizations such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. and the National Business Aviation Assn.
If the court overturns the 1948 transfer documents, it might open the door to efforts to close or re-purpose other airports around the country that were returned to local governments after World War II. According to the pilots association, there are at least 203 such airfields.
Over the years, attempts by Santa Monica to shut down the airport and curtail jet operations have not been successful in court. In the latest effort to ban jets with fast landing speeds, a federal appeals court ruled against the city in 2011, concluding that the prohibition illegally discriminated against aircraft types.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Advocates on both sides of airport suit respond to FAA motion
By David Mark Simpson
The Santa Monica (CA) Daily Press
SMO — The federal government’s response to the Santa Monica Airport lawsuit looks strong to some people with opinions on both sides of the debate.
On Friday afternoon, attorneys representing the Federal Aviation Administration filed a motion asking a judge to toss the lawsuit filed by City Hall over SMO.
City Hall has 10 days to respond to the motion and, given that it involves pending litigation, they won’t comment on it. City officials did confirm that the FAA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit was what they were expecting.
In October, City Hall procured attorneys Morrison & Foertster and filed the suit against the FAA attempting to determine who controls the airport and its 227 acres.
Local residents have long complained about the noise and pollution caused by the aircraft. They also fear for their safety, with some homes located about 300 feet from where jets and propeller planes take off and land.
One group of residents wants to turn the space into a park if City Hall can manage to gain full control of the airport.
In the FAA’s motion to dismiss, they argued that City Hall’s complaints are “unripe,” that the lawsuit was brought prematurely. As long as the airport is being operated, they say, the issue is not something to be brought in front of the court.
Airport Commission President David Goddard, an advocate for the airport’s closure, said that before seeing the FAA’s response, he expected that the argument could be heard in court because the lack of clarity surrounding the airport’s future “interferes with the city’s ability to plan.”
Now he’s less confident.
He called the FAA’s arguments “beautifully written.”
Goddard thought that City Hall’s attorneys have presented strong arguments, too.
“Like any great case, it will go back and forth,” he said. “One side presents its argument and you think they are going to win and then the other side responds and you’ve changed your mind.”
Goddard is confident that in the long-term, perhaps not in this lawsuit, City Hall will prevail because of a clause in a post-World War II document. It states, he says, that if City Hall decides to stop operating the space as an airport, “the title, right of possession, and all other rights transferred” revert back to the landowner.
City Hall lawyers make this argument in the lawsuit. They say that the federal government’s land lease expired in either 1948 or 1952.
Goddard acknowledged that he is not versed on all of the legal language but said he turns to local attorney, Jonathan Stein, for input. Stein, also a proponent of closing the airport, was frank in his prediction.
“I think the FAA is going to win the motion on the same grounds that I thought when I first heard that (City Hall) had sued,” he said.
City Hall, he said, is asking for the courts to make a ruling before there is “case or controversy,” he said.
Stein believes that City Hall should decommission 800 feet of the runway in July of 2015 — when he and City Hall argue the current SMO agreement terminates — and turn it into a park. The FAA maintains that the agreement runs through 2023.
Once City Hall takes this step, which Stein is confident they are entitled to do, then perhaps the courts will have something to rule on, he said. Until there is controversy, he said, he believes the FAA is correct that City Hall’s claims are unripe.
Ken Mead, the general council for the Airport Owners and Pilots Association, made similar points.
“Bottom line, I think the government’s breach is compelling,” he said. “Essentially the government does not get into the issue of the societal or economic values of Santa Monica. That would come, if it comes, at a later stage.”
As to that clause referred to by Goddard, Mead said that it will come down to land uses, not land ownership. The area, he said, is zoned to be an airport.