February 14, 2014
By Alyssa J. Miller
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter on Feb. 13 granted a motion from the Department of Justice and FAA to dismiss the city of Santa Monica’s lawsuit to release it from its obligation to operate Santa Monica Municipal Airport as an airport.
This is a major victory for the airport, and a blow to the California city’s latest attack on the airport. In its October 2013 suit, the city claimed that when it agreed to the transfer of federal land to the city in 1948 it did not know the United States claimed an interest in the title to the airport property. If the city were to ever close the airport, the government could take back the land.
The city made several allegations to the court, including that the city owned the airport before leasing it to the federal government and that the city had not been put on notice that the United States claimed an interest in this airport property.
The judge found that the city had been put on notice of the United States’ interest in the airport property, and that the statute of limitations for the city to make the claim expired decades ago. The city also raised various constitutional issues. These, too, were dismissed as not “ripe” for judicial review.
“The city’s claim was absurd,” said AOPA’s General Counsel Ken Mead, “and the judge simply applied the law.
“However, this doesn’t mean the city will give up. The city continues to strangle the airport while spending millions to try to close it. We’re ready for whatever they bring on.”
The Santa Monica Airport Association, a group of local pilots and airport supporters, has worked since 1967 to spread the word about the airport’s positive contributions to the community, and association President Steven Siry said the latest court ruling against the city’s takeover aspirations will by no means mark the end of the saga.
“It’s an incremental victory,” Siry said, adding the group is realistic about the future, fully expecting city officials and other airport opponents to find new ways to attack the airfield. “They’re not done. They’ll regroup.”
Indeed, the regrouping began immediately after the Feb. 13 ruling. The Los Angeles Times on Feb. 14 quoted airport opponents proposing a “starvation” strategy, one that could include refusal to renew leases and drive out airport businesses, reduction in aviation services, and to “possibly remove a large section of runway.”
A 2011 study by HR&A Advisors concluded that the airport, including related and adjacent businesses, generates $275 million in annual economic activity, and supports nearly 1,500 jobs. Siry said some of those business owners and employees have attended his association’s meetings, seeking the latest news and concerned about the potential loss of livelihoods. “This is kind of putting a lot of people in kind of an anxious situation,” Siry said, adding that in an already difficult economy, “people don’t need those kinds of disruptions.”
Siry said the association will soon meet again with AOPA Vice President of Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn to discuss strategy and prepare for the next round of the long-running fight.
In a statement released by the city of Santa Monica, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said, “the attorneys representing the City are already looking forward and focusing our energies on the City’s options.”
Walter didn’t hold back on his written dismissal of the case.
“The Court concludes that the record unquestionably demonstrates that the City knew, or should have known, that the United States claimed an interest in the Airport Property as early as 1948. The Instrument of Transfer expressly provides that, in the event the airport Property is used “for other than airport purposes without the written consent of the Civil Aeronautics Administrator,” “the title, right of possession and all other rights transferred by this instrument to the [City], or any portion thereof, shall at the option of [the United States] revert to the [United States] . . . .”
He didn’t stop there and proceeded to take on many of the city’s claims point by point.
Regarding the city’s assertion that it did not know the United States claimed an interest in the title to the airport property, Walter noted numerous points throughout history during which the city’s actions “demonstrate the City’s awareness that the United States had a continuing and substantial interest in the Airport Property”.... “Indeed, the City requested on three occasions -- in 1952, 1956 and 1984 -- that the United States release parcels of land from the restrictions in the 1948 Instrument of Transfer. Moreover, in 1962, in response to a question posed by the City Council about SMO’s future operations, the City Attorney issued a legal opinion which concluded, based in part on the Instrument of Transfer, that “the City cannot legally, unilaterally, on its own motion, abandon the use of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport as an airport.”
In other claims, the city argued that a 1984 agreement with the FAA allows it to do with the airport whatever it wishes after July 1, 2015, and that in that same agreement the FAA abandoned the property, relinquishing its interest in the title to take back the property if Santa Monica did not continue to operate the airport.
The 1984 agreement was a result of a settled lawsuit filed by the FAA after the city adopted ordinances to reduce traffic and noise at the airport. Part of the agreement states that, “The City will operate and maintain the Airport as a viable functioning facility without derogation of its role as a general aviation reliever airport as described in Section 2(b)(i) of this Agreement or its capacity in terms of runway length and width, taxiway system, and runway weight bearing strength until July 1, 2015.”
The judge said that the 1984 agreement does not stipulate whether the city can do as it pleases with the airport. “In other words, the parties failed to arrive at any agreement as to, or even mention, whether the City is obligated to operate SMO as an airport after July 1, 2015 or whether title would revert to the United States if the City ceases to operate SMO as an airport after July 1, 2015.”
But, he did point out the fallacy in the city’s claim that the FAA abandoned the property with the 1984 agreement. He said the agreement did “not constitute a clear and unequivocal abandonment of the United States interest in the title to the Airport Property.”
While signaling the victory in this case, AOPA President Mark Baker also cautioned the aviation community that the fight is far from over. The city of Santa Monica appears to be relentless in its pursuit to close the airport.
“The city will spare no expense—financial or the personal toll on its own residents—to close the airport,” said Baker, “but we will use every resource available to keep Santa Monica open.”
The city has demonstrated that it will spend millions in legal fees alone to restrict the airport. Just a few years ago, it spent $1.3 million trying to ban Category C and D jets from operating at the airport.
AOPA Vice President of Airports Bill Dunn said the city’s general plan calls for a business park at the airport, and that city council members have said that anyone who thinks Santa Monica will be turned into a park is wrong; it will be a development.
Adding a business development would only worsen the traffic congestion that plagues Santa Monica residents—and that is a top concern among city residents. AOPA commissioned a third-party survey in 2011 to gauge resident’s concern on various issues in the city. The airport ranked near the bottom of the list of residents’ concerns, with just 2 percent expressing that view. Meanwhile, traffic congestion and growth and development were at the top of the list. Yet, the city continues to come up with ways to waste money and increase traffic, AOPA said.
“The city is not representing its citizens,” Baker said. "Surveys have proven the majority of Santa Monica residents support the airport."
Currently, the city is refusing to extend leases on the airport beyond the July 1, 2015; the date the city believes it can do with the airport property as it pleases.
AOPA continues to work daily on strategies to defend and protect Santa Monica Municipal Airport, and to release the stranglehold the city has on the airport. AOPA is working closely with the National Business Aviation Association and others and will be garnering support for the airport.
“We will not stop fighting for this airport,” Baker said.
AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Miller has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.
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