Lawsuit to close Santa Monica airport meritless, AOPA says

October 31, 2013

Santa Monica Municipal Airport, Google Earth image.

The city of Santa Monica, Calif., filed a lawsuit Oct. 31 against the FAA, a move AOPA says lacks any merit in law and is another desperate bid by the city to close Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

In its lawsuit, the Santa Monica City Council asks the court to give the city clear title to the site of the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, and it reportedly challenges as unconstitutional the airport land transfers that were made with obligations that, in part, require the city to operate the airport in perpetuity. The city council knows those obligations exist but are singularly focused on striking them down by whatever method they can find. Each time, the city has lost the battle. 

As a proponent of the airport and its value to AOPA members, the local communities, and the national transportation system, AOPA has spent hundreds of hours working to keep Santa Monica Airport open. AOPA has researched the city’s legal claims over the years and has actively participated in litigation and in the public forum to strike down, time and time again, the city’s claims that the airport land is theirs to do as they want.

“It is abundantly clear that the claims made in the city’s lawsuit have no basis in fact,” said Ken Mead, AOPA general counsel. “The city’s argument is hardly a novel one, and it should be very clear by now to members of the Santa Monica City Council and opponents of the airport that the airport must remain in operation under its agreement with the federal government. That may be politically unpopular for a few council members, but it happens to be the law.”

The Santa Monica City Council has long sought to restrict and even close the airport, due to nearby resident noise complaints, though a recent survey of city residents by AOPA found that more than 70 percent wanted the airport to continue to operate. Most complaints are generated, apparently, by residents who don’t live in the city of Santa Monica.

In a statement, Santa Monica contends that it owns the airport land and that during World War II, it worked with the federal government to “expand and improve the Airport.”  After the war, the city statement says: “The airport was returned to the City through an instrument of transfer. The federal government claims that the instrument of transfer obligates the City to operate the Airport ‘in perpetuity’ or forfeit its ownership interest to the federal government. The City disputes this claim.”

Santa Monica Municipal Airport was founded in 1917, when few structures were present, and it has a storied aviation heritage. In the early 1920s, it was the home of Douglas Aircraft Co., which built the first houses near the field for its employees. Since then it has become surrounded by industrial and office buildings, and more homes have been built near both ends of its single, 5,000-foot runway.

Though those homes were built long after the airport was established, homeowners complain about noise and exhaust from aircraft using the airport.

In a statement, City Manager Rod Gould said city officials have met with the FAA and, “proposed possibilities for changes, including operational changes.” Gould stated that, “The FAA representatives were polite and respectful. But, they were simply unwilling or unable to agree to any changes that could bring significant relief to Airport neighbors. They believe that the city is legally obligated to continue operating the Airport as it now operates and to keep operating it forever because of the post-War transfers."

The FAA has offered options to the city to enhance safety of the airport but the city has flatly rejected them.

AOPA agrees with the FAA’s legal assessment of the airport’s status, which has been the subject of exhaustive review. Under a 1984 agreement with the FAA, many of the city’s leases at the airport expire in 2015. Airport opponents argue that the FAA’s obligation to the airport also expires at that time, which the FAA disputes.

The airport is home to about 267 aircraft, according to AOPA’s Airport Directory. But, more than that, “Santa Monica Airport is an integral part of the local economy, providing jobs and revenue that some estimates put over $200 million annually,” said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president for airport advocacy. “The city benefits from the taxes on that revenue, not to mention the exorbitant landing fees that it has imposed. And the airport operates in the black. It has a long tradition of serving the community and providing local aviators with the freedom to fly and a great amount of previous legal research has already shown that it will continue to do so.”