In a surprising reversal, the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to allow Santa Monica to close its nearly century-old airport.
In a press conference Saturday afternoon, Santa Monica Mayor Ted Winterer announced that the “historic agreement with the federal government” to close the 227-acre airport forever by January 1, 2029.
The decision to accept the settlement was approved in a 4-to-3 vote by the Santa Monica City Council and confirms with “absolutely certainty” that the city will be able to close the airport and gives the city the ability to immediately shorten the runway from its current length of nearly 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, drastically reducing the amount of jet traffic.
The three “no” votes, cast by Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich, Kevin McKeown, and Tony Vazquez, were not because they believed that the airport should stay open, but rather because they felt the city should keep fighting to close the airport at a sooner date.
At the press conference, however, city officials noted that without this agreement, shortening the runway could have taken years of pitched legal battles with the FAA. Instead, City Manager Rick Cole said the runway could be shortened within months under the agreement. Without this agreement, there is no guarantee that the city would have ever been able to close the airport or shorten the runway.
Interim City Attorney Joseph Lawrence called the agreement “unprecedented,” noting that no other city in the U.S. has secured permission from the FAA to close the an airport within their jurisdiction.
The agreement, which ends all current legal disputes the city had with the FAA, comes as a surprise, a fact officials acknowledge in Saturday’s press conference.
“The FAA until quite literally two weeks ago” insisted that the airport stay open “in perpetuity,” Lawrence said.
The agreement, which ends more than three decades of legal challenges against the FAA by the city, required tremendous compromise, Cole noted at the press conference.
“We started so far apart,” said Cole, referring to the city’s position, that the Council aim to close the airport by next year if legally possible, and that of the FAA.
“Any compromise is going to have elements that are difficult to digest,” Cole said.
FAA officials called the agreement a “fair resolution,” according to media reports Saturday.
Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who sat on the Santa Monica City Council from 1999 to 2012 when he was elected to the State Assembly, offered his congratulations in a statement Saturday.
“I congratulate the city council, manager, attorney, and all of the city staff who have doggedly pursued a successful strategy and brought an end to a decades-long effort,” said Bloom.
“As the former Mayor of Santa Monica, I worked on this issue for the nearly 14 years of my council tenure and recognize the tenacity, courage, and resilience that it takes to go up against a massive federal agency that had dug in its heels for decades. Today’s settlement is a watershed moment in Santa Monica history that benefits the city and many surrounding communities,” he said.
The city first challenged the FAA in the 1980s over increased jet activity in an effort to stem noise. The city had been in-and-out of court with the federal government over the last three decades as it attempted to regain control of the airport, which sits on city-owned land.
Frank Gruber, a long-time opponent of the airport, chronicled the most recent battle the city had been fighting with the FAA and tenants of the airport here.
Two years ago, a pitched political battle over the future of the 227-acre airport parcel played out between national aviation interests and local anti-airport activists when two competing ballot measures were put before voters.
Measure D, sponsored by aviation interest, would have frozen the current use on the land as an airport, making it impossible to make even the most minor changes without first going to a vote of the people.
Measure LC, a competing measure, was placed on the ballot by the City Council. While Measure LC kept ultimate control of the future of the airport land in that hands of the Council, it also required that any future use of the land other than a park would have to be approved by voters.
Voters rejected Measure D and approved Measure LC by a landslide.