City Staff Asks for O.K. to Begin Work on July 2015 SMO Closure

What do your eyes tell you? Do they tell you the airport is losing popularity among locals and is becoming more and more a way for the super-rich to avoid LAX or that increased fees are making it less hospitable to local pilots?

What do your eyes tell you when you see this chart on landings at SMO? Do they tell you the airport is losing popularity among locals and is becoming more and more a way for the super-rich to avoid LAX or that increased fees are making it less hospitable to local pilots?

The jet plane roars overhead. I sneak a peak at the sleeping child in the stroller next to me. She stirs, but doesn’t move. Another jet, literally moments later, passes overhead. This time she wakes up screaming. For some reason, when it’s cloudy it seems the incoming flight path for Santa Monica Airport changes just a little. For these couple of dozen days a year, it’s right over my Mar Vista home.

I hate cloudy days.

But today is different. While I stopped what I was doing to push the stroller and rock my little angel back to sleep, I didn’t suffer the momentary irritation I usually do when jet noise interrupts my life.

Today, while baby was sleeping, I was reading the City of Santa Monica’s staff report asking permission to begin the work to close Santa Monica Airport. While there’s a lot of work to do before this can happen, and there will doubtless be many legal challenges from “pilot’s rights” groups and the Federal Aviation Administration, the report itself makes me smile.

Tomorrow night, the City of Santa Monica City Council will devote an entire meeting to airport issues. The agenda includes an update on the recent lawsuit, an update on the airport’s finances and actions the city needs to take now if it is serious about closing all, or part, of the airport in the near future.

The city and the FAA are currently arguing about whether or not an agreement the two government bodies signed in the 1980′s allows the city the possibility of closing part of the airport in 2015. The city contends that on July 1, 2015, when a 1984 funding agreement runs out, it can truncate the west end of the airport runway by roughly 2,000 feet. On the same day, the lease agreements with tenants, i.e. the people renting space to store their airplanes and equipment, also expires. The FAA is of the opinion that earlier agreements require the city to run the airport as-is forever.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, the FAA claims that even if previous agreements don’t require the city to operate the airport in perpetuity, that it has to at least until 2023. Airport2Park has a good summary of the disagreements. If A2P is too political for you, the airport has its own summary in a pretty extensive history page on its website.

So, off to court the two bodies went. The city pre-emptively sued the FAA seeking clarification of its rights in federal court. The case was thrown out before it was heard, largely on procedural grounds. The report prepared by city staff explains:

Judge Walter granted the motion in its entirety without reaching the merits of the claims.  He did not decide whether the federal government has any remaining interest in the Airport land.  The Quiet Title claim was dismissed with prejudice.  So, it cannot be renewed in the trial court and can only be appealed.  However, the City’s constitutional claims were dismissed without prejudice on the ground that they were not yet ripe for adjudication because the Council had not yet decided what to do with the Airport.  And, the Fifth Amendment takings claim was dismissed based on Judge Walter’s conclusion that it can only be heard by the federal Court of Claims in Washington, D.C.

Thus, without direction from the courts, it’s back to the drawing board for the city. Tomorrow’s Council meeting will shed a lot of light on what direction the city will move next.

If the city does want to close all, or part, of the airport, it has some work to do. Staff lists the following items to be added to today’s to-do list:

  • Zoning Airport Land:  Proponents of closure have argued that the Airport land, which is presently not zoned, should be assigned a zoning designation or designations compatible with surrounding uses and that, at least while the Airport is in operation, no leasehold rights should be conferred upon lessees whose operations are inconsistent with the zoning designation(s).
  • Planning to Clean Up and Halt Environmental Damage:  Reuse of the Airport land could require significant environmental clean-up.  The Airport was a huge manufacturing site for decades.  And, fuel has been stored in underground tanks on the Airport for more than fifty years.  Consequently, staff recommends assessing the environmental status of the Airport and identifying future options for preventing adverse environmental impacts.  One such option would be curtailing or eliminating fuel sales by lessees after July 1, 2015 through lease provisions.  For instance, perhaps leases could specify that only jet and unleaded fuels could be sold by lessees.  Or, perhaps only the City should sell fuel.  These approaches could minimize future adverse environmental impacts, but, they require further evaluation.
  • Adopting and Implementing Leasing Policies That Protect Neighbors from Incompatible Uses, Safeguard the City’s General Fund, and Preserve Future Options:  Present leasing policy requires that leasehold activities be compatible with surrounding uses.  Staff recommends fully implementing this policy when the current leases all expire next year.  This would mean that either flight school operations would change significantly or there would be no leases to flight schools after the 1984 Agreement expires.  Experience has shown that the low-altitude, patterned operations typical of flight training have very significant and detrimental noise impacts on residential neighborhoods near the Airport.

Even if the city decides to go forward with a full, or partial closure, beats the FAA, pilot’s rights groups and another defenders of the 1% that pop out of the woodwork in court, does all it’s homework to make sure there are no unintended consequences and gets approval from the state after an environmental review, any major change is years away. On July 1, 2015 the airport is not going to magically become a better neighbor by having fewer (or no) jets spewing pollution into our lungs. There’s too much to do, too many hurdles to overcome.

But reading the report, I can see a plan is coming together, and a timeline is being created. Seeing the first real outline of a course of action, I’m a little hopeful that there might be a change before the startled baby in the stroller next to me is off to college.

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