Gruber: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures, Desperate Companies that Rent Corporate Jets

This story first appeared on Gruber’s personal website, The Healthy City Local.

I’ve already been quoted by Jason Islas in The Lookout calling the initiative that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has filed to prevent the Santa Monica City Council from closing Santa Monica Airport a desperation move, but there is more to it than that.

The filing of the initiative to amend the City Charter to preserve the airport also shows that notwithstanding all the bravado coming from AOPA and the aviation industry it represents, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about the City’s purported obligation to operate the airport in perpetuity, they are all scared. Why? They know that the deal they made with the City in 1984 to settle that generation’s litigation over the airport was that the City could close it in 2015, that the 31 more years of flying they got then were the last they’d get, and they know that once the City gets them in court, the City’s rights over the land will be confirmed.

Even more than that, they know that when the City Council takes the actions — by the end of this year — that the council directed staff to analyze and put into policy form, that the path to closing the airport, or at least reducing its operations substantially, will be irreversible.

They also know that once the City embarks on developing the “concept plan based on low intensity use” that Council Member Kevin McKeown added to the actions the council adopted Tuesday night, they will lose their argument that the City will replace the airport with commercial or otherwise intensive development.

So AOPA had to act now. Loaded with money from the aviation industry, AOPA will try to persuade voters that all it’s doing is making sure the voters have ultimate authority over the decisions the City Council makes, but voters already have that authority – through the referendum process. As the recent signature-gathering for the referendum on the Hines development shows, if 10% of Santa Monica voters don’t like what the City Council decides to do with the airport, the council’s actions will go to a vote.

From the language in the proposed initiative, it’s clear that AOPA wants not only to pass an initiative requiring votes on airport decisions, but also to pass one that is vague and broad enough that any action the City would take in managing its property at the airport – an adjustment to a lease, for instance – would be subject to a lawsuit from aviation interests on the basis that the action, however ministerial, would need to be voted on.

AOPA, if it spends enough money, can obtain enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. Sure. But I for one am confident that the voters of Santa Monica will see through their plan and vote no.

In the meantime, however, it’s worth looking at some of the arguments airport proponents made at the City Council hearing Tuesday night.

Perhaps the most obnoxious argument airport defenders make is the one that homeowners near the airport bought into the area with knowledge of the airport, and that that disqualifies them from being concerned about their health and safety. But of course those residents don’t really care about their health and safety – they’re only fighting the airport for the big bucks they are going to make when they can sell their homes once the airport is gone.

Do they know how insulting this is?

Aside from ignoring the many people who want to close the airport who don’t fall into this category, this argument ignores important facts. One is that many homeowners bought their properties when jets were banned at the airport. Jets magnify the airport’s impacts, and the number of jet operations and the size of the aircraft have increased greatly over the years, so that the situation has become much worse for all residents, regardless when they moved in.

But truly the argument should be reversed – since 1984 it is the pilots and the aviation businesses who have known that the City would likely close the airport in 2015 and would certainly have the right to do so. It is they who should have been making plans for the future. These businesses lease their facilities from the City – businesses in the real world lose their leases all the time. (I still miss Broadway Deli!) What are these proud business people complaining about? They way they go on about the government’s obligation to keep their businesses going, you’d think they were socialists!

Another argument the pro-airport people make is that in the event of an emergency Santa Monica Airport will be the area’s lifeline. Okay, I don’t want to jinx things, but we had an earthquake in 1994 that was big enough to knock down the Santa Monica Freeway, and I don’t recall anyone re-staging the Berlin Airlift. The same goes for emergency flights. There is no reason that a park at the airport can’t have open ground sufficient to land emergency helicopters.

There’s no question that the most appealing uses of the airport are the Angel’s Flight medical flights. But given that there are other airports nearby, and given the benefits of the great park that replace the airport, are they sufficient reason to keep the airport open?

As for building a great park on the airport land, the airport proponents keep saying that the City wouldn’t have the money to build it. Where they get this, I don’t know. In the past 20 years the voters of Santa Monica have approved more than a billion dollars in school and college bonds. They have an unbelievable public spirit and they love their city. I have no doubt that they would approve a parks bond to cover construction costs that cannot be financed otherwise.

Lastly, the Daily Press ran a story by David Mark Simpson about concern among non-aviation businesses at the airport over extending their leases, focusing on Typhoon Restaurant. A representative from Typhoon also spoke at the hearing Tuesday night, asking for flexibility in leasing guidelines to justify his client investing in improvements in the now 20-year-old restaurant. I hope that staff can incorporate that kind of flexibility into its leasing guidelines, but more than that, I am sure that Typhoon will sell even more of its delicious whole catfish to even more customers once the restaurant’s big windows look out over a great park full of happy people rather than a runway with screaming jets.

Thanks for reading.

1 Comment

  • John Jerabek says:

    Hi Frank,

    I’ll respectfully disagree and point out that the Santa Monica Airport, in continuous operation since 1917, is as much a right of way for aircraft, as the Expo Line, formerly the “Air Line” is for rail. There was a time not so long ago when Zev Yaroslavsky tried to grab the old Air Line rail easements for real estate development, fortunately he was rebuffed, the easements were saved and we now once again have rail transit coming to Santa Monica. No one knows where aviation technologies will be in a few years, would you have believed me if I told you a few years ago that a company called Tesla Motors would be revolutionizing the automotive industry? From the tone of your post it doesn’t seem like it. Condemning the AOPA is convenient, but the fact of the matter is, being anti-airport has become a litmus test for local politicians, no matter how short-sighted that position might be. Is there some reason you think it’s inappropriate for Santa Monica voters to have a direct say in the development of the land?

    John Jerabek

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