SMO — A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. has declined to review an FAA ruling that determined City Hall is barred from enforcing a ban, passed by the City Council in 2008, prohibiting class C and D jets from landing at the Santa Monica Airport.
The ruling, issued on Friday, was the latest blow to local officials’ attempt to bar larger private jets from using the facility. Since at least 2002, Santa Monica officials have favored limiting runway access to only smaller class A and B aircraft, arguing larger jets pose a safety hazard because SMO lacks a sufficient buffer zone between the end of its runway and homes in surrounding neighborhoods.
Some homes are just 300 feet away from the 5,000-foot landing strip.
“I am disappointed by the D.C. circuit’s decision, but I am not surprised,” said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. “The city fought this case long and hard. I believe staff and outside counsel did good work and mounted a strong defense of the ordinance. But, in the end, the substantial deference that the courts afford to agency decisions drove the result.”
Mayor Richard Bloom said a decision about whether to appeal the ruling had not yet been reached.
“From the perspective of residents, this result adds to their concerns and will likely provoke more cries for airport closure,” he said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency “was, and remains, confident in [its] legal position.”
The decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found no reason to overturn an FAA decision that Santa Monica officials could not ban certain types of jets from SMO because of obligations City Hall took on under the terms of a federal grant it received from the FAA in 1994.
The grant agreement included a condition that stated SMO must make its facilities available “on fair and reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination, to all types, kinds and classes of aeronautical uses” for 20 years from when the funds were spent.
Under the grant terms, City Hall could, however, prohibit classes of airplanes from using the airport “if such action is necessary for the safe operation of the airport or necessary to serve the civil aviation needs of the public.”
First before FAA administrators, and then in federal court, City Hall has argued the class C and D jet ban was a necessary safety regulation. The FAA has maintained the ban violates terms of the grant agreement.
In front of the appeals court, lawyers for City Hall sought to convince the panel of judges that the FAA’s rejection of its ban was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”
In siding with the FAA, the judges cited the “highly deferential standard of review” in cases where a federal agency’s administrative finding is at issue, noting that “this court presumes agency actions to be valid.”
The unanimous opinion also cited case law to justify the court’s right to “uphold a decision [by a federal agency] of less than ideal clarity if the agency’s path may be reasonably discerned.”
Gregor on Friday said the FAA is prepared to help Santa Monica pay for installing an “engineered material arresting system,” otherwise known as collapsible concrete, designed to slow down planes that are in danger of overshooting the runway to address safety concerns.
It’s an offer City Hall has rejected before and is likely to reject again, since accepting FAA funds would probably mean extending the obligation to operate the airport.