SMO — Last month a judge tossed City Hall’s lawsuit against the federal government over the future of Santa Monica Airport but advocates say that was just a lost battle in a larger war.
One tact, they say, could involve essentially starving the airport of all but the runway.
Last week, the Airport Commission voted 4 to 1 to send a recommendation to City Council that would halt the sale of aviation fuel and restrict the rental of airport property to any tenants others than art studios and those doing light manufacturing. They also suggested raising all rents to market rate.
Advocates believe the approach, with its lack of services, could make it nearly impossible for pilots to actively use the airport. It could also lead to a decisive lawsuit between City Hall and the FAA, forcing a final determination of who truly controls the land.
Neighbors of the airport have long complained of the noise and pollution created by jets and propellor planes. Others fear for their safety, with homes located about 300 feet from the edge of the runway. Last year, a jet skidded off the runway and into a hangar, killing all four people on board.
Last month a judge threw out a lawsuit filed by City Hall against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). City officials could still appeal or take other actions but they say they are still considering their options.
The FAA and City Hall differ on when the airport lease expires, with the former claiming it’s in 2023, 20 years after City Hall accepted $250,000 in grants from the FAA. City officials claim the contract ends in July of 2015 with the expiration of a 1984 agreement.
Either way, Airport Commissioner David Goddard said, the 1984 agreement contains key provisions that will no longer be in effect.
One expiring provision, that City Hall must maintain the 5,000-foot runway, is not being tested by the commission, Goddard said. Advocates of closing the airport claim that City Hall could start whittling down the size of the runway, making it less attractive to pilots.
“We looked at all our options and then selected the one that was most politically viable,” Goddard said.
Another option would allow City Hall to zone-out all but uses by art studios and light manufacturing companies. Several years ago City Hall tried and failed to stop heavier jets from landing at SMO. They were found to be inappropriately discriminating against the heavier jets. Council likely could not simply discriminate against aviation tenants, Goddard said, but stricter requirements across the board to occupy the properties could be acceptable.
Commissioner Stephen Mark questioned whether or not they would be able to maintain safety at the airport if all aviation services were zoned out. Goddard responded that licensed off-site mechanics would be allowed to come to the airport if a pilot needed emergency repair.
“You’re going to get a lot less air traffic here and a lot more people diverting to other airports where those services are readily available,” he said. “You may get someone who flies in to get lunch at Typhoon and then they’re going to fly out but otherwise they aren’t going to be there because there are no services to attract them.”
If the FAA does conduct an administrative hearing and interprets one of the many active agreements to mean that City Hall still has to provide aviation services, Goddard said, the only penalties listed are the revocation of airport funds and passenger fees. These conditions are moot, he said, because City Hall doesn’t take FAA funds or charge passenger fees.
Commissioner Suzanne Paulson asked why, if the penalties are moot, did City Hall agree to comply with the agreement with the FAA regarding the jet weights. Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell explained that the two parties reached a settlement in that case but that penalties are not the only consideration.
“Even though you correctly point out that if we’re found in violation, you list the penalties, but there’s a bigger frame of reference that we’re working under,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any policy or practice of (City Hall) to intentionally violate its obligations under its contractual arrangements or agreements.”
Goddard is not sure when the issue might go before council but City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said that she could not comment on suggestions from the community until city officials release the staff report for an upcoming public hearing.