CITY HALL — The nation’s largest lobbying group for pilots and aircraft owners is backing an effort to amend the City Charter so that voters, not the City Council, will decide the fate of Santa Monica Airport.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has pledged its support for the ballot initiative, which is being spearheaded by supporters of SMO who claim the City Council is in favor of shutting down the airport so the 227 acres it sits on can be redeveloped.

Supporters filed paperwork with the City Clerk’s Office Thursday, just two days after the City Council voted in favor of studying options that would chip away at the airport’s operations, including closing a 20-acre parcel on the west end of the runway and restricting or prohibiting the sale of aviation fuel.

Nearby residents have long protested the existence of the airport, complaining of noise and pollution created by jets and propellor planes. Others fear for their safety, noting that the end of runway is about 300 feet from homes. Some have lobbied to shut it down and turn the land into a park.

Advocates point to the City Hall-sponsored report that estimates the airport brings in roughly $275 million every year. If nearby freeways were to collapse again, as occurred during the Northridge earthquake, SMO would be Santa Monica’s lifeline to the outside world, advocates say.

Several contracts from different years dating back to World War II govern the airport land. The Federal Aviation Administration believes that one key agreement expires in 2023 and that another obligates City Hall to operate the land as an airport indefinitely. City Hall maintains that it is out of the deal in July of next year.

Last year, City Hall sued the FAA, attempting to find out who will control the airport after 2015, but the judge threw the case out saying, among other things, that the issue was premature.

In their filing, the initiative proponents note that the airport and associated business park are “low- density, valuable community land uses that generate business, jobs and tax revenue for the city,” while closing the airport would likely lead to higher density development, according to a report by AOPA.

Proponents add that the city itself has said that it does not have the resources to develop and maintain such valuable property for low-density use, like a park.

“This political game by politicians and special interests who hope to profit from redeveloping 227 acres of Santa Monica has gone on too long. It is clear from their statements and their actions that the politicians can’t be trusted to maintain a low-density land use and therefore it is left to the people to express their vote before the city of Santa Monica takes any action to redevelop airport land,” proponents of the charter amendment wrote.

Mayor Pam O’Connor responded to some airport advocates’ claims that City Hall will over-develop the area if the land opens up during Tuesday’s council meeting. She called them “alarmists” and noted that because it is public land, the community will decide what happens.

The proposed amendment would require voter approval before the council can make airport land available for non-aviation uses or can close or partially close the airport. It also requires the council to continue to operate the airport “in a manner that supports its aviation purposes” and stipulates that City Hall cannot impose new restrictions that would “inhibit the sale of fuel or the full use of aviation facilities.”

AOPA has committed to offering nationwide support to the effort to protect the airport, which it says plays a significant role not only in the local economy but also in the regional and national transportation system.

SMO acts as a vital general aviation reliever airport for nearby LAX and other airports. Ongoing battles over the airport land also have implications for more than 200 other airports nationwide that benefit from similar post-WWII property agreements with the federal government, said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airports.

“We’re pleased to see the citizens of Santa Monica moving to put these issues in the hands of the voters,” Dunn said. “Support for the airport is strong, but some city leaders seem intent on doing everything they can to close the field and redevelop the property, regardless of what it costs taxpayers, business owners, working families, and the community as a whole.”

It is currently unclear who is behind the initiative. Listed as contacts with the City Clerk’s Office are Flora Yin, an attorney with the Los Angeles law firm of Reed & Davidson, which specializes in politics and elections and two others.

Calls to Yin were not returned by presstime.

The group, Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic, is already gearing up for a fight.

On the group’s website, they said, “AOPA … is bankrolling this effort to dupe Santa Monica’s citizens into giving up their one and only chance to fix the lack of park space in this city.

“[W]e will of course be organizing widespread opposition to this outrage. We are going to kick their butts on this one and it begins today!”

Robert Rowbotham, president of Friends of the Santa Monica Airport, said his group isn’t behind the initiative, but he is excited by the possibilities. He believes only a “small group” of residents want SMO closed and wants the voters to have the final say, not “a few elected officials who seem easily manipulated.”

He believes if SMO is closed the land will be redeveloped into more offices and apartments.

To qualify a charter amendment for the November ballot, supporters must gather signatures of support from 15 percent of registered voters living in Santa Monica. As of 2012 there were 60,909 registered voters.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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