CITY HALL — City Hall is taking the Federal Aviation Administration to court to settle once and for all who has control over the Santa Monica Airport and its 227 acres, city officials announced Thursday.
The airport has long been a bone of contention for neighbors, who complain of loud aircraft noises and fear that an errant jet or plane could strike nearby homes, some which sit 300 feet from the end of the runway. In September, a jet veered off the runway and crashed into a hangar, killing all four passengers.
The lawsuit asks a federal court to give City Hall a clear title to the land and challenges the constitutionality of the FAA’s assertion that City Hall must operate the airport after a 1984 settlement agreement, which establishes their obligations with the airport, expires. City officials claim the contract expires in 2015.
An FAA official said that they do not comment on pending litigation and have not yet reviewed the lawsuit.
It’s been the FAA’s view that City Hall is obligated to keep the airport open at least through 2023. FAA officials also claim that City Hall must keep SMO open beyond that date thanks to a 1948 agreement with the federal government, which required City Hall to operate the airport in perpetuity.
City officials have met with FAA officials six times since 2011.
“The FAA representatives were polite and respectful,” City Manager Rod Gould said in a release. “But they were simply unwilling or unable to agree to any changes that could bring significant relief to airport neighbors. They believe that … (City Hall) is legally obligated to continue operating the airport as it now operates and to keep operating it forever because of the post-war transfers.”
City Hall hired the law firm Morrison & Foerster to represent them in the case.
“We were particularly impressed with the Morrison & Foerster team’s litigation credentials, aviation experience, and appellate expertise,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said in the release. “I’m certain that they will provide excellent representation in this singularly important case.”
Moutrie provided basic information about how City Hall would be paying the law firm.
“The agreement with Morrison & Foerster specifies payment for services based on an hourly rate,” she said in an e-mail. “That rate is blended, and it is discounted from the firm’s standard hourly rates because City (Hall) is a public entity paying with public funds.”
Despite the fact that the law firm is being paid with public funds, Moutrie would not provide the specific hourly rate, citing attorney-client privilege.
“The reason it is privileged isn’t to keep information from the press and the public,” she said in an e-mail. “It is to keep the information from our adversaries in the litigation.”
The Daily Press has filed an official request for the information under the California Public Records Act and is awaiting City Hall’s response.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association called the lawsuit “meritless.”
“It is abundantly clear that the claims made in the city’s lawsuit have no basis in fact,” said Ken Mead, the association’s general counsel. “The city’s argument is hardly a novel one, and it should be very clear by now to members of the City Council and opponents of the airport that the airport must remain in operation under its agreement with the federal government. That may be politically unpopular for a few council members, but it happens to be the law.”
The federal government will have 60 days to respond to City Hall’s complaint.
“We need the court to decide whether the city has control over its land so that, next year, we can make a decision about the airport’s future,” Mayor Pam O’Connor said.
Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution Director Martin Rubin released a statement in favor of City Hall’s decision, highlighting health concerns created by aircraft fumes.
“Health is a huge part of the equation, and the federal government needs to be accountable for the health of airport neighbors,” he said. “Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution is interested in results. If this lawsuit will get us the results we need quickly then we applaud City (Hall) for taking this action.”
The airport opened in 1917 as an informal landing strip for World War I biplanes. Donald Douglas tested military and civilian aircraft, including the DC-3 and DC-4, at the airport starting in the 1920s. The airport has been the subject of numerous lawsuits starting after World War II.