Court order delays runway reduction at Santa Monica airport

MATTHEW HALL
Daily Press Editor

A federal court has issued a temporary restraining order preventing the City of Santa Monica from pursuing a project to shorten the runway as Santa Monica Airport.

Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew issued the ruling on Sunday, October 8 based in part on the original construction schedule that would have begun work on Monday, October 9.

City Hall has plans to remove 1,500 feet of runway from the airport in an attempt to discourage jet flights. The first phase of the work is limited to restriping, repairs and new lighting.

The work is currently scheduled from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Oct. 18, 19, and 20. The airport will be closed during the work.

The start of construction was delayed nine days due to delays on the part of the contractor chosen for the work.

Phase 2 includes actual removal of the abandoned runway and is scheduled for Dec. 20 – 30. The airport will be closed for those 10 consecutive days.

Officials have said a shorter runway will reduce jet operations by 44 percent, from around 16,300 flights per year to 9,000 with an annual increase in traffic between five to ten percent.

The new configuration will make it difficult for jet charters to operate at the airport but does not make it impossible to fly jets out of SMO.

Plaintiffs Kate Scott (a Santa Monica resident) and James Babinski (a pilot who uses the airport), filed the motion arguing the city did not hold adequate public review of the proposal.

The court agreed citing precedent that requires public hearings for runway work at an airport. The judge ruled the city did not hold public hearings before agreeing to a settlement with the FAA that included the city’s ability to establish runway protection zones and realign the existing runway.

“Under California Public Utilities Code section 21664.5, an amended airport permit is required for every airport expansion, including ‘acquisition of runway protection zones’ and ‘realignment of an
existing runway.’ While the department may provide regulatory exemptions, it may not exempt the requirement for public hearings pertaining to environmental considerations,” said the ruling.

The judge said a shorter runway could hurt neighbors and pilots.
“Plaintiffs argue that the proposed realignment will force planes to fly approximately 100 feet lower in altitude, causing increased noise at the departure end of the runway near adjacent neighborhoods,” he said.

“Additionally, Plaintiffs contend flight at lower altitude over densely populated areas increases the risk to pilots, such as by eliminating the ability to turn back to land on the departure runway in the event of engine or other mechanical failure,” said the ruling.

Judge Lew said the combined result is a likely to meet the legal standard to grant a restraining order.
“Thus, Plaintiffs will likely prevail at trial on the merits of their claim that Defendant failed to comply with the foregoing substantive law mandating a public hearing for environmental considerations arising from the terms of the Settlement Agreement,” he said.

Shortening the runway is allowed under a controversial agreement between the city and the FAA signed in January of this year following years of dispute between the two groups. In addition to the runway reduction, the FAA agreed not to fight closure of the airport in 2028 and City Hall will take over some previously private airport functions such as fuel sales.

Airport opponents have criticized the deal for extending the life of the airport beyond what they think is legally required and airport supporters have said the deal will harm the regional air traffic system while worsening local traffic/development problems.

The recent ruling gives the city until October 13 to respond and explain why the temporary restraining order should not be made permanent.
Editor@smdp.com

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