How short can an airport’s runway be before it is no longer an airport?

A 1948 agreement between City Hall and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — called the Instrument of Transfer — requires that the former operate the Santa Monica Airport in perpetuity but the July expiration of a 1984 agreement may give City Hall the right to close a portion (The Western Parcel) of the airport and shorten the runway.

City Council discussed shortening the runway at an important meeting last March, but the topic has not been addressed head-on. At last week’s Airport Commission meeting, commissioners discussed the potential options for a smaller runway.

The airport has long been a thorn in the side of the nearby residents, who complain about the noise and pollution created by the aircraft. Some fear for their safety as the runway is located about 300 feet from homes.

Advocates of the airport say it’d be essential in the case of a widespread emergency and claim that it generates revenue for the region.

Some opponents of the airport have suggested a strangulation approach: Keep the airport open but make it less attractive to pilots and eventually it will crumble, they say. Shortening the runway falls within the strangulation approach.

Last March, council voted to move toward chipping away at the airport rather the all-or-nothing goal of total closure. It may bring leases up to market rate. It may regulate environmental impacts of planes and leaseholders alike. Shortening the runway came up as well, but was not discussed at length.

“The City could design and submit for approval a new Airport Layout Plan that would shorten the runway on the western end by excluding the Western Parcel, which is not covered by the Instrument of Transfer,” city officials said in the report to council.

SMO’s runway is already relatively short, according to city officials.

In another section of the March 2014 report to council, city officials reviewed some of the benefits of closing the Western Parcel.

“Shortening the runway,” they said, “would create a buffer between the runway end and the residential neighborhood.”

“Adverse impacts on Airport neighbors would likely be reduced because the shorter runway would impact Airport usage,” they said.

Last Monday, with the agreement expiration only four months away, Airport Commissioners discussed shortening the runway in the midst of a conversation about leases at the airport.

“I’m just pondering about making this really clear that isn’t something that you just sort of play around with,” Commissioner Stephen Mark said. “That it’s going to be not part of the airport.”

“What you would do is, on July 1, 2015, go out there and paint a big white stripe across the runway,” Chair David Goddard responded.

“Or urinate all over it,” Commissioner Peter Donald suggested.

“No,” Goddard said. “A big white stripe and just take it out of aviation use.”

The Airport Commission is absent of any pilots and several members have expressed a desire to close SMO, leading to calls of bias from aviation advocates.

“If it’s just painting a white line on the concrete,” Mark said, “it doesn’t take much for somebody to march in and say take that line off again.”

“That’s true,” Goddard said, “but we’re not trying to violate any of our agreements. We’re exercising our rights. If somebody doesn’t like our rights, they challenge us in court.”

Bill Worden, president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, said that just might happen.

“The Federal government has taken the position that the 1948 instrument of transfer gave the city the entire airport with its 4789′ runway,” he said. “They do not view the 1949 quit claim on the western parcel as relevant and would most certainly step in if the city were to try to close part of the runway.”

Worden said a shorter runway would not be safe for pilots.

“The council may try it anyway and end up back in court,” he said. “They seem to like to do that.”

Mark suggested forming some kind of vision for the Western Parcel.

“I keep thinking that we should be making some plan to do something with that,” he said.

“The City Council agrees with you,” Goddard responded.

dave@smdp.com

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