The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the City of Santa Monica for actions the FAA believes might violate the law that requires City Hall to keep the airport open.

The FAA sent a Notice of Investigation to Santa Monica on Sept. 26 with accompanying subpoenas for city officials to provide testimony at the FAA’s regional office on Oct. 12. The documents state the new investigation has been expedited based on recent actions taken by City Council.

According to the documents, the FAA has initiated a new case (known as a Part 16 hearing) based on actions including the recent council resolution declaring the city’s intent to close the airport on or before July 1, 2018, the adoption of new leasing guidelines that have denied long-term leases to aviation tenants and the city’s stated goal of phasing out leaded fuel sales as part of a takeover of aviation services.

Santa Monica recently required two airport based companies (referred to as Fixed Base Operations or FBOs) to vacate the airport to make way for new city-operated services. The companies currently provide services such as fuel sales and flight lessons. The FAA previously sent a letter to the City warning of possible legal action based on the City’s stated intent to close the airport and in the new filing, the FAA said it is expediting the new investigation as a result of the ticking clock.

“Because the City’s Notices to Vacate require the two private FBOs to vacate SMO within 30 days, or no later than Oct. 15, 2016, the Agency finds that expedited handling of this matter is required. Accordingly, FAA has shortened the response period and the City has ten days from the date of service of the NOI to respond,” said the Notice of Investigation.

The usual response window is 30 days.

“As part of this investigation and under separate cover, FAA is issuing subpoenas that require the City to provide detailed information, plans, and assurances with respect to a number of issues, including but not limited to, the City’s plan to replace the functions provided by the two private FBOs and the City’s plans to provide fuel that can be used by all aircraft. No extensions of time will be granted unless the City withdraws its Notices to Vacate,” said the FAA letter.

The investigation will focus on the city’s obligations to the federal government related to the acceptance of grant money.

Santa Monica has accepted money over the years for improvements at the airport. Acceptance of grant money comes with a list of obligations and in a recent ruling, the FAA said City Hall is required to operate the airport under those assurances until 2023.

The grant assurances require the airport must be made available for public use on reasonable terms and without discrimination. The FAA said that assurance requires leases be offered for aeronautical activity. A municipality is allowed to takeover airport services but the city-provided services must not discriminate in a way that violates Grant Assurance and the FAA will examine if any of the city’s proposals amount to discriminatory practices as many planes still require leaded fuel.

In addition to requiring in person testimony, the FAA is also requiring documentation related to 26 specific issues including plans to take over fuel sales, information about flight instruction, documentation of maintenance and safety protocols and proof of contracts to provide fuel sales.

Those documents are due to the FAA by Oct. 3.

In a written statement, Mayor Tony Vazquez said the new investigation will not deter the city from moving forward with plans to close the airport.

“This is an overreach by the FAA,” he said. “Our priority is putting the community first and exercising our rights as owner and operator of the airport.  Now the FAA is clearly on a fishing expedition to protect Washington special interests who fear losing corporate profits. Despite the FAA’s efforts, we will not falter on our commitment to safeguard our community from the negative impacts of the airport until the courts make a final determination.”

editor@smdp.com

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