CITY HALL — A diminished City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to push forward with the second phase of a visioning process examining the future of Santa Monica Airport despite calls by neighbors to go back to the drawing board.
The vote also directed the city attorney to explore legal action that would clarify what rights City Hall has over the airport property in 2015 when two binding agreements with the Federal Aviation Administration are expected to expire.
The goal of the first phase was to look at possible alternatives between two extremes — maintaining the status quo at the airport and outright closure.
To do so, the City Council hired three consultants — HR & A Associates, the RAND Corp. and Point C Partners — to assess the current state of the airport in terms of its economic impact, non-aviation land uses and public perception about the area.
But residents took issue with the reports, alleging that they were slanted toward keeping the airport operating without considering either closure or even a modification of uses for the 187 acres of the campus devoted to aviation.
“We live in a city where leaf blowers are banned because of noise and lanes are closed down for bikes … and you don’t even look at other alternatives?” said resident Thane Roberts.
The presentations overall showed a decidedly glowing view of the airport, without mentioning many of residents’ chief concerns including noise, pollution and proximity of the planes to residential areas.
Paul Silvern of HR & A Associates, an economic development, real estate and public policy firm based in Santa Monica, told council members that his models demonstrated that the airport contributed $187.5 million in direct benefit to the local economy and employed over 1,400 people at no cost to City Hall’s General Fund, which covers essential services like police, fire, libraries and street maintenance.
Silvern, of Sunset Park, a neighborhood directly impacted by the airport, had not been tasked to look at the financial ramifications of changing the uses at the airport, nor looking at a cost-benefit analysis of the current operations.
HR & A was also asked to confine its analysis to the 8.3 square miles of Santa Monica.
The RAND Corp. was similarly constrained.
Dr. Martin Wachs, of RAND, kept his analysis focused on the 40 acres of non-aviation land on the campus, ignoring the other 187 acres that houses hangars, flight schools, the runways and other aviation services.
Instead of addressing any kind of mitigation measures, Wachs spoke of new restaurant or shopping opportunities, access improvements and the possibility of a site to help foster small business.
Residents and other stakeholders challenged that premise, noting that the recommendations did nothing to address people’s primary concerns, and instead would just add to another complaint: traffic.
The local focus did nothing for the crowds from Mar Vista, Venice and West Los Angeles that flocked to the meeting to express their concerns with the process.
“Santa Monica gets all of the revenue, and we get all of the noise, pollution and fear,” said Lies Kraal, a Venice resident.
Those present also complained that Point C Partners, a firm that conducted over 100 interviews with residents, stakeholders and aviation interests, restricted them from commenting on closure, instead pressing for other ideas.
Of the 42 speakers that took the podium Tuesday, less than 10 seemed to have any warm feelings for the airport, while the rest either asked the council to send the consultants back for more information or advocated for closure.
Council members were inclined to move forward rather than revisit the first phase.
The steps laid out in the visioning process will serve to create a record of public opinion that can become the baseline for whatever option this or another City Council chooses to take, be that development of the airport or a legal battle with the FAA, said Councilman Kevin McKeown.
“There’s a very practical reason to move forward,” he said. “Eventually, we will go to court or pursue political pressure in Washington. Before we make that work, we will have to agree on what we want.”
That could only be achieved by going onto the next phase, a more formal series of focus groups that will put all options on the table.
Perhaps by design, the hot topic of the night — closing the airport —was the one thing that council members could not touch.
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie made that point abundantly clear at the beginning of the meeting when she laid out the legal context of the airport discussion.
“Council members can only deliberate on what’s on the agenda,” Moutrie said. “They cannot deliberate to close the airport because that is not agendized.”
Even so, council members danced around the subject all night, particularly when the first public speaker, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, took the podium.
Rosendahl went for the throat, asking that the City Council join arms with him to bring the fight over airport closure to U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica).
Nothing is impossible, he maintained,
“A pilot told me, ‘Rosendahl, the airport was here first,’” he said. “Well, the Indians were here before us.”
Santa Monica Councilmember Bobby Shriver, who invited Rosendahl to the meeting, pressed the L.A. official for details.
“How would that really work?” Shriver asked. “It’s great, we’ll join arms, but how will we really work on a day-to-day basis?”
As Rosendahl launched into an explanation, Moutrie cut him off short.
“I’d be delighted to speak to the attorneys in Los Angeles at any time,” she said. “I am not delighted about this unagendized discussion of closing the airport.”
For those looking to explore the entire range of options, the second phase of the visioning process will be a series of focus groups where participants from any zip code, both inside and outside the city, will be able to express their views.
Residents and others will be able to sign up on a website that will be created for the purpose.
City officials will also work with flight schools to minimize their impacts on the neighborhoods and begin reaching out to regional partners for support on the airport issue.
Phase 2 is expected to run from December 2011 to May 2012.