Santa Monica – Public, commissioners weigh in on airport studies

Many in attendance express distrust about direction of ongoing visioning process

CITY HALL – “This sounds like a set up.”

In one phrase, Airport Commission Chair E. Richard Brown captured the dissatisfaction of community members concerning the three-phase process to examine the future of the Santa Monica Airport, which has left vocal residents feeling their opposition to SMO stifled.

Brown’s pronouncement came after Assistant Director of Public Works Susan Cline outlined the second phase of the visioning process, and assured commissioners that information about City Hall’s legal constraints involving the airport would be made available to the public to inform the discussion.

“If one were cynical, one might think it’s designed to create a narrow band of options,” Brown said.

It was a common sentiment about the process thus far.

Cline followed a question-and-answer session with Paul Silvern of HR&A Advisors and Martin Wachs of RAND Corp., the two organizations that completed studies which represented the first phase of the visioning process launched by City Hall earlier this year to examine the economic impacts of the airport and the future uses of non-aviation land in Santa Monica.

Both were attacked by community members and commissioners for focusing exclusively on either the positive economic impacts of the airport on both Santa Monica and the surrounding Los Angeles region or ignoring the possibility of closing the airport and using the land for something more community-friendly.

Residents say that the perceived slant tainted the process before it got off the ground by precluding the notion that the airport could ever be closed, despite stiff opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Beginning the next phase with warnings of the FAA’s opposition to closure would similarly restrict public comment.

The public first saw the presentations at the Oct. 4 City Council meeting, where the results of phase one were presented and council gave permission to go forward despite community protests that the studies didn’t look at the full impacts of the airport on the surrounding community.

In October, only council members could address the two consultants. At Monday’s Airport Commission meeting, however, the public and commissioners were unleashed.

Commissioners directed two pages of questions to the consultants on Nov. 23 which focused on the scope of the studies and what other options for the airport and aviation land might look like.

Neither Silvern nor Wachs would venture far down the road of speculation.

“The purpose of being here was to present, not to venture into other topics,” Silvern said. “I can’t speculate on alternatives to the process.”

Wachs pondered the question, but could offer little else.

“Why did we not offer alternate options?” he asked. Reducing operations at the airport and the future of aviation-related land was outside the scope of the study assigned by the City Council and staff.

Brown pushed for a more detailed analysis of the economic impact study provided by HR&A, saying that the $187.5 million in direct economic impact by the airport meant little if people didn’t know what uses created the cash.

“What this doesn’t do is address the driving concerns of aviation operations and what are the specific impacts like flight schools, et cetera,” Brown said. “We would be more informed with disaggregated information rather than in the aggregate.”

If the City Council chose to pursue that route, HR&A could study it, Silvern replied.

Residents questioned the consultants on the approach to the studies.

Nathan Court, of Venice, accused HR&A’s study of providing “half of the equation” for not providing the costs of keeping the airport open alongside the hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect benefits accounted for by the report.

“You don’t run a business by looking at your revenue, but not your costs,” he said.

Residents also drilled down on RAND’s analysis of airport best practices.

According to Wachs, the ideas in best practices came from a review of publications and then outreach to the airports which emerged out of the literature.

The research did not always result in a defined set of best practices because relatively few applied to the unique circumstances of the airport.

Most were looking for ways to put more dense development around the airports, and those that saw airports close down lamented the loss, Wachs said.

Airport Manager Robert Trimborn had given him a good piece of advice when he began his research, Wachs said: When you look at one airport, what you’ve seen is one airport.

While the first phase of the visioning process dealt with the baseline data, the second phase will be a direct engagement of citizens about what they would like to see done at the airport.

That information will then form the basis for a third phase examining the feasibility of the community’s suggestions, which will be completed by winter 2013, Cline said.

CalPilots Editor’s Note: The complaints sound a lot like the political process, where airport detractors believe if you don’t agree with me then your idea is wrong…. very disappointing.

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