SUNSET PARK — The majority of the 15 Santa Monica City Council candidates declared their intention Thursday to close or severely curtail operations at Santa Monica Airport, one of the city’s thorniest social and legal issues.
Candidates discussed their positions at a forum held by Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP), an organization begun by West Los Angeles anti-pollution activists who have taken aim at SMO for its environmental and health impacts.
This election is a big deal for activists in West L.A. and Santa Monica because it will be the first of two opportunities to elect members to the City Council who will have a hand in negotiations that could result in the ultimate closure of SMO.
Four seats are up for election in November. The second opportunity, in 2014, will replace or reelect the remaining three council members.
“Politically, we’re in a unique time,” said Martin Rubin, a resident of West L.A. and director of CRAAP.
From the outset, nearly all of the 15 candidates except for Shari Davis and Terence Later expressed their desire to close SMO in 2015 or severely curtail operations by flight schools and private jets.
Later told the less-than-receptive audience that the airport still served a function for emergency situations, like bringing in supplies in the event of a major earthquake. Davis demurred, saying that she was going to stay open minded on the subject and looked forward to future dialogue.
Other candidates were less circumspect.
“This airport makes no sense. It’s a relic of the industrial past, and like many other things, its business is slowly dying,” said Planning Commissioner Richard McKinnon. He and the others seemed ready to help it along.
Many Santa Monicans don’t think much of the Santa Monica Airport, a 227-acre stretch of land on the city’s southeast end that was once the home of Douglas Aircraft Company when the land on either side of the runway was unpopulated.
Today, people’s homes lie within 300 feet of the end of the runway, and residents of Santa Monica, West L.A. and Mar Vista alike worry about the health impacts caused by prop planes buzzing by burning lead-based fuel and large jets spewing fumes as they idle waiting for takeoff. There are also fears about a lack of proper runway safety areas to guard against overruns.
Efforts to curb operations at the airport have been met with stiff opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration, particularly in light of a 30-year agreement made in 1984 which obligated City Hall to run the airport.
The agreement expires in 2015, when City Hall and the FAA will have to go back to the bargaining table for what could be another big fight, one which many believe will involve extensive litigation.
While fiery comments like McKinnon’s were well-received, the audience and its moderator were not so easily convinced of the candidates’ fervor.
A series of five (multi-part) questions that followed quickly demonstrated who kept up with SMO issues and who followed the headlines.
While all stressed the need for safety — both from crashes and pollution — only a handful, including incumbents Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, Planning Commissioners Ted Winterer and McKinnon and former columnist Frank Gruber, seemed comfortable talking about more esoteric topics like the City Council’s “proprietary rights” over the airport and the possibility of regulating emissions from the airport using the “indirect source review,” a lengthy process that requires the cooperation of outside agencies to pull off.
Others reiterated their personal experiences with the airport, particularly those like Winterer and former Councilmember Tony Vazquez who live near enough to the airport to be impacted by the planes.
Sitting council members came into the conversation with one hand tied behind their backs.
Although they were knowledgeable on many details of airport policy — and knew more than anyone in the audience about the closed-door negotiations between City Hall and the Federal Aviation Administration — some hold them accountable for not doing enough to cut operations at the airport or shut it down.
City officials say they are limited in what they can do because the FAA has won in court on major issues like an attempt to ban jets.
While she’s ready to go back to court with the FAA if need be, watching previous attempts go sour has caused Gleam Davis to approach the matter with caution.
“I’m happy to litigate, but I want to make sure that what we get out of the litigation is what this community needs,” Gleam Davis said.
Both O’Day and Gleam Davis also voted in support of a visioning process for the future of the airport which many members of the community believe is fundamentally flawed. Even Jerry Rubin (Martin Rubin’s brother, three-time candidate for City Council and general optimist on city matters) called the process “myopic.”
Council and city officials have also come under fire for shelving ideas put forward by the Airport Commission, an advisory body that has spent much of the last year researching new ways to limit what goes on at the airport.
That can include charging pilots to land there or imposing a requirement that pilots carry additional kinds of insurance.
The issue of landing fees will go before the council in October, O’Day pointed out.
That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is just what a commission should do, although council members cannot always go along with it, Gruber said.
“I want the commission to be wild and crazy, to be the bad cop. You want the commission being out there really pushing the envelope thinking about things, but not thinking that everything will be adopted by the City Council,” Gruber said.
Although the group seemed to find consensus on the point that something should be done with the airport, they were divided on exactly what, particularly now that local redevelopment finances have been dealt a death blow by the state.
John Smith, a former news producer with NBC, cautioned that although the community hates the airport, they would have to step lightly to ensure they didn’t end up with something as bad or worse.
“I don’t want to see another Playa Vista in the heart of Santa Monica,” Smith said, referring to a large housing development near Marina del Rey that was opposed by Santa Monicans. “I don’t want to trade one problem for another problem.”
Other ideas ranged from an arboretum (McKinnon), not developing the space at all and using the runway as a farmer’s market (Steve Duron) or even growing medical marijuana in the hangars (Jon Mann).
Although there was a certain amount of “preaching to the choir,” the forum got high praise from Marcia Hanscomb of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club.
“These forums have changed the level of political discourse in a positive way,” Hanscomb said.
The goal is to educate the public about airport related issues, Martin Rubin said Friday.
CRAAP will review the recording of the meeting and decide whether or not the organization wants to endorse anyone in the upcoming election.