Santa Monica Airport (File photo)
Santa Monica Airport (File photo)
Santa Monica Airport (File photo)

CITY HALL — Santa Monica Airport may be a different place after Tuesday night’s special City Council meeting.

Santa Monica’s top elected officials will spend the entire evening discussing SMO, from new charges to pilots and businesses that use the airport to dramatic changes in leasing and configuration of the site to make it less obnoxious to those that live nearby.

The effort comes at the end of a three-phase visioning process undertaken in February 2011 to examine different aspects of activities at the airport and gather community opinion in advance of 2015.

After that, city officials believe they will have more control over the future of the airport, particularly with the expiration of a 1984 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, which obligated City Hall to operate the airport through 2015 but recognized its ability to put restrictions on some aspects of airport operations.

Whether or not City Hall can escape obligations under grants with the FAA before 2023 is still in dispute.

Activists on both sides of the airport issue agree on little, but they do have common ground on this — neither is happy with the report by city officials.

Pilots plan to protest the new landing fees, which will more than double and apply to planes parked at SMO for the first time.

Those against the airport, both Santa Monica residents and those who live near the airport in West Los Angeles, feel that the recommendations to limit operations and try to mitigate existing problems don’t go far enough to adequately protect people from noise and chemicals spewing from aircraft.

“If Santa Monica starts to change its vision, what they need on the first three reports is corrective lenses,” said Martin Rubin, founder of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution.


Landing fees


Council members will get their first look at the proposed changes in landing fees, which officials hope will turn the tide of red ink coming out of the fund that supports SMO.

Under the proposal, the fees would more than double from $2.07 per 1,000 pounds of plane weight to $5.48 per 1,000 pounds in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The charges would creep up after that, rising to $5.67 and $5.89 the following two years, according to forecasts in the report.

SMO is already one of the only general aviation airports in Southern California that charges landing fees, but the most dramatic element isn’t so much what they’re charging, it’s to whom the fees apply.

In the past, landing fees — actually assessed using photographs captured by SMO cameras when a plane takes off — only applied to planes that had spent less than 30 days at the airport. That meant that those who use the runway most often, like flight schools, were never charged.

Those schools make up 41 percent of the total local operations at SMO, according to the City Hall report.

The new proposal changes that, and that could have devastating impacts on the schools, said Robert Rowbotham, president of Friends of Santa Monica Airport, or FOSMO.

“The initial impact is that the businesses will suffer first,” Rowbotham said. “Home-based airport businesses like the flight schools and repair facilities will be the first ones that suffer, because they’ll have less traffic.”

The report, however, signals that City Hall is ready for SMO to pull its own weight, at least on its ledgers.

The Airport Fund, a separate account used to pay for SMO’s expenses, is supposed to be self-sustaining. As of June 2012, it owed the General Fund $13.3 million, according to the report.

The new landing fee would cover those costs, and allow City Hall to pay for projects to improve both aviation and non-aviation-related facilities at the site.

Money set aside for repairs and improvements could only be used to meet the bare minimum rather than full rehabilitation of pavement or other issues.

Right now, SMO uses fees on fuel and fines for noise violations to offset the cost of aviation operating expenses, said Martin Pastucha, director of the Department of Public Works at City Hall.

While it’s true that most airports either do not charge landing fees at all or only to planes coming from elsewhere, a growing number of airports are beginning to look to the charges, according to the report.

This will be the issue that brings out the pro-aviation community on Tuesday, Rowbotham said.

“The fear for us at FOSMO is that businesses, employees and families are going to suffer because of this,” Rowbotham said. “Why isn’t the city or the airport managing their expenses in a better way?”


The vision


Rubin has a lot of problems with the report, but the landing fees aren’t one.

The remainder of the suggestions focus on ways to cut down on problems that locals have with the airport, through programs to reduce noise and even a reconfiguration of the site to move airplanes further from homes.

Officials recommend putting $200,000 up for matching grants so that small aircraft owners can afford to buy and install mufflers for Cessna 172s, the most common type of plane at the airport.

Residents and airport employees alike were wowed in December by a German product installed on a flight school plane that cut noise by almost five decibels, sometimes more, and also slashed the duration of the noise by several seconds.

The products are expensive, however, and aircraft owners may need help to get them on the planes.

It might also be possible to move all aviation-related businesses to the north side of the airport, near the business park. That would take them further from homes, helping with both noise and the direct impact of air pollution.

Other changes requested by the community — like axing the sale of fuel, tighter noise restrictions and shortening the runway — all looked like an invitation to litigation that City Hall is not likely to win, according to the report.

Although the report shows some progress, Rubin believes that ignoring the possibility of airport closure in the analysis is a bad move.

“We know what the status quo is, but the huge opening of a potential closure of parts or all of the airport, we don’t know anything about that. Why won’t they let us know about it?” Rubin asked.

Officials did leave some hints in the report, saying that full closure of the airport could result in changes in flight patterns at nearby Los Angeles International Airport that would bring huge commercial jets much closer to the area, causing more noise.

It might also lead to dense redevelopment of the property, whose only redeeming feature in the eyes of some residents is the fact that it doesn’t generate much vehicle traffic.

No amount of extra traffic seems welcome at the site.

In an otherwise up-beat e-mail listing areas of support (nearly all), Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood group, came down hard on the idea of even expanding Santa Monica College facilities on non-aviation land, citing pressure on already-bad traffic.

Calls for a massive park on the site were dismissed as too expensive, with projected costs of at least $50 million, plus more to maintain.

Open session of the City Council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Expect many speakers.


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