On Oct. 31, City Hall filed a complaint against the Federal Aviation Administration in federal court to establish the city’s right to control the future use of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) property. If City Hall wins, subsequent land use decisions will have a tremendous impact on residents in both Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
Mayor Pam O’Connor told KPCC on Nov. 6 that “the status quo will not be tolerated.” A local newspaper quoted Assemblyman Richard Bloom as saying, “I support the process and the litigation that the city has undertaken to test its jurisdiction.” State Sen. Ted Lieu posted on his website, “I commend the city of Santa Monica for filing suit against the FAA.”
L.A. Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes neighborhoods under the SMO flight paths, posted on his Facebook page, “It’s time to shut this airport down.” And a photo in another local newspaper showed Bonin’s predecessor, Bill Rosendahl, at a 2012 rally holding a sign that said “Close SMO for good.”
Meanwhile, an Oct. 31 website posting by the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA, with 385,000 members worldwide) claimed that the lawsuit “lacks any merit in law and is another desperate bid by the city to close Santa Monica Airport.”
A commenter on the AOPA site used the massive Playa Vista development (estimated to generate 44,000 new daily car trips) replacing the Hughes Aircraft Company’s 9,000-foot runway as a cautionary tale.
The city’s 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update devoted only three pages to SMO and the adjacent 52-acre Santa Monica Business Park. The “Strategic Approach” stated that, “It is proposed that the city prioritize the creation of a Santa Monica Airport/Business Park Specific Plan for both entities in anticipation of the expiration of the ‘1984 Agreement’ with the federal government in 2015. After that, the use of the airport land will be a local land use matter.”
Possibilities seem to include SMO remaining in operation as is, shortening the runway to eliminate jets, extending the business park south to Airport Avenue, building affordable and/or market rate housing, or converting all or part of the property into a “great park.” (Regarding the park option, see Airport2Park.org.)
In 2011, the city undertook an “Airport Visioning” process regarding possible alternate uses of SMO after 2015. The Ocean Park Association (opa-sm.org/airport) and Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (casmat.org ) also conducted online surveys about the airport’s future. About 80 percent of their respondents wanted to either mitigate the negative SMO impacts or close the airport.
So how did a busy general aviation airport like SMO end up in the middle of residential neighborhoods?
Pilots began landing in a grassy field in the southeast corner of Santa Monica around 1917. Donald Douglas began testing aircraft there and, in 1926, the city of Santa Monica purchased the property with park bond funds, renaming it Santa Monica Airport.
In 1941, the federal government leased SMO for the Douglas Aircraft Company, which was manufacturing military aircraft, and built a new 5,000-foot runway. This required the demolition of many blocks of Sunset Park homes between 27th to 23rd streets.
In 1948, after the war ended, the eastern section of SMO was returned to the city through an “Instrument of Transfer.” The western section was returned in a quit claim deed in 1949.
City Hall declined a 1959 Douglas proposal to further lengthen the runway, which would have required the demolition of even more homes. In order to consolidate operations in Long Beach, Douglas closed its Santa Monica facility in 1975. After the plant was demolished in 1979, Clover Park and Santa Monica Business Park took its place.
City officials banned jets in 1975, but the ban was overturned in 1977. In 1981, the City Council declared its intention to close SMO when legally possible. However, to settle ongoing disputes, it later signed what became known as the “1984 Agreement” with the FAA, obligating City Hall to continue operating SMO until July 1, 2015.
In 1989, the city chose a developer to build 1.3 million square feet of office/commercial space, with parking for 3,700 cars, on 30 acres of land on Airport Avenue. After residents gathered enough signatures to get this on the ballot, the project was canceled.
In 2002, the staff presented City Council with a plan to install standard Runway Safety Areas (RSAs) and eliminate the larger, faster Category C and D jets. After years of failed negotiations with the FAA, the City Council went forward with banning C and D jets in 2008, but the FAA prevented implementation.
In 2004, Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (jetairpollution.com) began organizing Santa Monica City Council Candidates Forums which focused on airport issues.
In 2009, the FAA tested a new SMO departure path, sending prop planes over Sunset Park and Ocean Park homes and schools, rather than over Penmar Golf Course. That generated thousands of complaints.
UCLA published a study examining the spread of ultrafine particles from jet exhaust into residential areas downwind (east) of SMO.
Between 1982 and 2011, there were dozens upon dozens of aviation accidents/incidents and 40 fatalities connected with SMO. These included a fatal crash at Penmar Golf Course in 2010 and a student pilot crashing into a Sunset Park home in 2011. A summary is posted at FriendsofSunsetPark.org/airport under “Safety Concerns.” The first jet accident occurred in September 2013 when a plane landed at SMO but then veered into a hangar across the alley from homes on Pier Avenue and burst into flames. Tragically, everyone onboard died.
The British Medical Journal posted a study that analyzed the relationship between airport noise and cardiovascular-related hospitalizations. Meanwhile, annual jet landings and takeoffs at SMO increased from 1,725 in l993 to l8,575 in 2007.
At this point, all the issues are on the table, along with all the supporting arguments. It appears that the aviation industry’s issues will be decided by the court, and the resulting land use issues may be decided at the ballot box.
Zina Josephs is a longtime Sunset Park resident. She and the other members of Our Town can be reached at email@example.com