Santa Monica Lookout
|Santa Monica Airport Opponents Undeterred by FAA Threat||
By Niki Cervantes
September 1, 2016 -- Activists and City officials said Wednesday they are undeterred by a new threat from federal authorities to sue the City for deciding to close Santa Monica's century old airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) warning in an August 30 letter came one week after the City Council voted on August 23 to shutter the embattled airport by July 1 of 2018, if legally possible ("Santa Monica Council Votes for 2018 Airport Closure," August 25, 2016).
“We are not surprised,” Mayor Tony Vazquez said of the warning. “We will respond respectfully but vigorously to defend our rights to local control of land owned by the citizens of Santa Monica since 1926.”
Santa Monica Council Member Kevin McKeown also said the City will not relent.
“The threatening letter may demonstrate that the FAA is not the paper tiger some have assumed,” McKeown said, “but our continued insistence on our rights as owners of the land will not be deterred.”
Meanwhile, activists also took note of the FAA’s warning. Some expressed frustration that the City -- which won praise for last month's council vote -- could face yet another legal impediment in the fight over SMO’s fate.
“The FAA's position states that the City is required to continue to operate the airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination,” said Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP) and a longtime warrior in the SMO struggle.
“What would be unjust about limiting the poisons spewed over many thousands of SMO neighbors mostly within the City of Los Angeles?” he asked. “While the legal arguments continue for who knows how long, is it reasonable to continue to poison the air with extreme toxic jet emissions? We know the answer is no.”
Among other related actions on August 23, the council also ordered a city takeover of aviation-support services, such as selling fuel, now handled by two private companies at the airport.
City Manager Rick Cole has until December 31 to do so, if feasible.
Some local anti-airport activists -- including some of the City’s harshest critics -- called the council vote its boldest move in years over SMO.
But the FAA letter indicated it was not pleased.
“The FAA is prepared to pursue all legal remedies at its disposal if the City Council takes concrete actions to restrict leases or operations without complying with applicable federal law,” wrote Kevin C. Willis, the agency’s director of airport compliance.
The letter said that pending judicial review, the City “is required to continue to operate the airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.”
Another issue tied to the FAA warning is whether it could effectively undo the council’s motion closing the airport by 2018, since the language is tied the City overcoming legal obstacles -- a caveat that already worries some anti-airport factions.
Other lawsuits meant to keep SMO open are already awaiting court decisions and could keep the City in legal limbo for years yet
But McKeown said the City is not violating federal law, as the FAA warns in its letter.
“Our proposals and intended actions are fair, reasonable, non-discriminatory, and legally compliant,” he said.
SMO has been under siege for much of its century-old existence, particularly as neighborhoods surrounding it in Santa Monica and nearby areas of Los Angeles grew more densely populated.
But battling has intensified in the last five decades, as jet use soared. Today, SMO’s neighbors regard it as an aviation playground for the rich that leaves those on the ground choked by toxic air pollution and deafened by the roar of jets.
The aviation industry says SMO’s critics exaggerate, and should have been prepared for living near an airport when they moved in. They regard SMO is a vital relief value for congested Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
This particular skirmish dates back to the early 1980s, when the FAA expanded City authority over SMO as long as the City kept it open until June of 2015. The FAA subsequently said the 20-year pact was invalidated after the City accepted federal airport improvement money in 2003.
The new grant re-started the clock, and meant the City was mandated to keep SMO open until 2023, the FAA determined in December ("FAA Rules Santa Monica Airport Must Stay Open," December 7, 2016).
The City appealed the FAA decision to the agency itself and fully anticipated the denial handed down August 15. Next up is an appeal by the City to federal court.
The FAA letter noted the City is providing leases for non-aviation SMO tenants but requires aviation tenants to rent on a month-to-month basis, and has warned them they can be evicted at any time.
In addition, Willis asked the City to submit its airport leasing policy and new plans for a city-run aviation entity to the FAA for review.
He also said a key federal transfer agreement reached when the U.S. government returned the airport to Santa Monica after the war effort mandated the City keep SMO open in perpetuity.
Santa Monica airport opponents and City officials want the 227-acre facility to be recreated primarily as parkland. A dream to make it into what is now called "The Great Park" started only a few years after it opened.
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