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Flying Blind

By Frank Gruber

October. 3, 2011-- Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will dedicate an entire meeting to one topic, the future of the Santa Monica Airport. The council will deliberate over and presumably decide the process for determining over the next few years what that future will be. Due to various factors, including legal issues with the federal government with potentially national implications, it’s hard to imagine a more complex planning challenge.

The council began this planning process almost a year ago when it authorized City Manager Rod Gould to hire consultants to advise the City on (i) possible uses for the airport land, (ii) how to structure a community process to gauge public sentiment about the airport, and (iii) the economic and fiscal impacts of the airport.

Now those draft reports have been received, and the Council will be reviewing them and deciding on next steps.

This is taking place because in 2015 all current land and building leases at the airport, as well as the City’s 1984 operating agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), expire. At that point the City will have as blank a slate as it will ever have for figuring out what to do with the airport.

But how blank will that slate be? For many years, going back to the ’80s when the city entered into the current agreement with the FAA to settle litigation, and to the ’90s when the City (purportedly) accepted its last money from the FAA for airport improvements, many people within the city, both residents and officials, have been looking forward to 2015 as the first date when the City might shut airport operations down.

However, the FAA vociferously contends that Santa Monica cannot close the airport because of the terms of the agreement between the federal government and the City to transfer the airport back to the City after World War II. (The FAA also contends that the City accepted federal funds as recently as 2003, which would mean that the City would need to operate the airport at least until 2023.)

The City disagrees with the FAA’s interpretation of the World War II-era agreements, but it’s not clear the staff wants to battle the feds. The staff report for tomorrow night’s meeting states, “if the City attempts to close the Airport, the FAA will not hesitate to aggressively fight against closure in the courts. Such a fight would go on for years; and, at best for the City, the outcome would be highly uncertain. What is certain is this: the fight would be long and expensive and -- perhaps most important -- neither party would be able to control the result.”

Based on this, it’s apparent that staff believes it would be in the interest of Santa Monica to enter into an agreement with the FAA instead of litigating the issue of closure. The staff report points out that in its recent losing battle with the FAA to restrict jet traffic at the airport, the City spent more than $1 million. Yet without a court ruling the FAA will never agree to close the airport. That would mean that of the 227 acres at the airport, the plans for 2015 would affect only the 40 designated “non-aviation.”

I understand why staff would like to avoid another battle with the FAA, but it makes no sense to engage the City in a four-year process to plan the airport without knowing what the City’s rights are. Can the City close the airport or not? Do we have to wait until the City tries to close the airport to find out?

I am not a litigator and I couldn’t tell you whether the City has grounds to seek declaratory relief ahead of an actual attempt to close the airport to find out if it has the power to do so. But that is the question that should be answered before the City spends hundreds of thousand dollars in a planning process that could be meaningless.

* * *

About the airport I have mixed feelings. It is absolutely crazy to run an airport in the middle of a densely populated area, and, frankly, that is probably my bottom line. But in the course of getting there I cannot help but feel a certain amount of sentimentality, rooted in history, about the airport.

One cannot overestimate the importance that Santa Monica Airport has had to the history of flying, both civil and military. The tradition of general aviation there is as much a part of Santa Monica’s heritage as surfing.

It’s funny, but also illuminating about politics in Santa Monica, that the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission has not, to my recollection, even looked at the airport since 1988 when it landmarked the beacon tower there. In the meantime, it landmarked a World War II-era Quonset hut that has nothing significant to do with the history of Santa Monica.

I wish we could go back in time to when jets were banned at the airport. I wasn’t following local politics then, but it seems to me that it’s the jets that really turned people against the airport. Even today, when I visit the airport, for instance to eat at Typhoon, or to attend an art show, I still get a warm feeling when I see people flying their own small prop planes.

But yes, it’s crazy to operate an airport surrounded by houses, and that land could be put to better use.

* * *

Department of Reporting on the Activities of Good People: The L.A. Times reported last week that former Santa Monica City Manager Lamont Ewell has come out of retirement to become the interim city manager of troubled Compton, Mr. Ewell’s hometown. Compton is running a $25 million deficit, and a politically divided city council fired the current city manager because a majority of the council members thought he had not been forthcoming about the deficit.

Talk about taking on a tough job when you have no need for the aggravation. Good for you, Mr. Ewell.

* * *

Meeting Notice:

Wednesday night Santa Monica’s Urban Forest Task Force will meet to discuss the City’s draft “Urban Forest Master Plan.” The draft was released on Friday and is a remarkable document -- 171 pages all about trees in Santa Monica, and about a lot more than that, too. You can download the report from this link

The meeting will take place Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Martin Luther King, Jr., auditorium at the Santa Monica Main Library, 601 Main Street.

Expect some fireworks, by the way. Choosing species for the city’s streets has become one of the more contentious issues in the city.

If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at .

If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.


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