The federal government fired back against Santa Monica late Friday, filing a motion to dismiss the city’s lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration to determine who has ultimate control over the city’s airport.

SMO
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The city filed suit in U.S. District Court in October claiming that the federal government lacked the legal standing to force it to operate the airport “in perpetuity.” The city said it is only obligated to keep the airport running until July, 2015.

But the FAA blasted that idea in its motion, stating that previous agreements between the city and the federal government dictate that the city must keep the airport open until August, 2023, and beyond. Essentially, forever, if the government so wishes.

The controversy over whether Santa Monica Airport stays or goes has garnered passionate feelings on both sides.

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Pilot groups who want the airport open point to the airport’s long historical place in the community and its value today to the local economy. But others in the community are worried about noise problems and safety issues and envision other uses for the 227-acre site. A fiery crash at the airport on Sept. 29 killed four people.

Santa Monica claims that by forcing it to keep the airport open indefinitely, the federal government was illegally taking away its property rights.

But the government denied this claim, and stated that even if that legal notion had merit, it should be decided in the Court of Federal Claim, not U.S. District Court.

The government asked that the motion to dismiss be heard on February 10 before Judge John F. Walter.

Judge Walter is being asked to examine the legal standing of documents and agreements that go back decades.  Court filings by both sides contain barely legible pages predating the 1950s.

At issue is a 1948 agreement called an Instrument of Transfer where the government turned the airport property back to the city following World War II.

The city says that based on this agreement, the government’s interest in the airport has “ceased entirely.”  The FAA rebuffed this idea in its motion, saying that the transfer agreement binds the city to continually operate the land as an airport.

In addition, the FAA’s motion references a 1962 opinion by Santa Monica’s city attorney that states just that, backing the FAA’s claim that the city has long known that it must never “abandon the use of Santa Monica Airport as an airport.”

The FAA also states that any claims about the 1948 agreement needed to be filed years ago, and are now expired.

If the city succeeds in establishing its legal right to do what it wants on the site, what happens after that would still be up in the air. But the city sees the lawsuit as an important first step in determining just who has final say over how the airport is used: the city or the federal government.

One prominent group planning for a future without the airport operation is Airport2Park, which has been meeting to develop plans to turn the airport space into a cultural and lush oasis. The group maintains a running countdown on its website  to July, 2015 when the city would gain full control of the airport if its lawsuit succeeds.

A member of the group, Frank Gruber, said that winning the lawsuit is not the only way the city can gain control over the airport space, “but it’s the most direct way to establish their rights to close the airport.”