File photo

Airport critics and supporters are engaged in a war of words over recent actions at the Santa Monica Airport.

The recent exchange began on Feb. 26 when Senior Advisor to the City Manager Nelson Hernandez sent an email announcing the departure of Gunnell Properties.

“This is consistent with Santa Monica policy of local control of Airport land; land that the people of Santa Monica purchased in the 1920s and have owned continuously for nearly 100 years,” he wrote. “The City attempted to negotiate an agreement with Gunnell that would have facilitated a smooth and orderly transition, unfortunately the parties were unable to reach terms.”

Gunnell has operated at SMO for 29 years. The company had multiple sub-tenants renting space at their site and the city said those individuals might be allowed to stay.

“Although the City intends to permit former Gunnell sub-tenants to submit a lease application, the City is under no obligation to offer lease agreements to any of Gunnell sub-tenants,” said Hernandez’s email. “Submitting an application to the City does not obligate the City to enter into lease negotiations, offer a lease agreement, or execute a lease agreement.  The decision to execute a lease agreement will be made solely within the City’s discretion as landlord and property owner.”

Leases at the airport have become a contentious subject. City Hall refused to offer long-term leases to aviation related businesses last year, instead providing only month-to-month options. Critics have said the city’s process is unfair and potentially in violation of federal rules regarding airport management.

A recent letter addressed to Mayor Tony Vazquez by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) said the city is required to offer new leases to the impacted businesses. Steve Brown, NBAA Chief Operating Officer, said federal rules require the airport to allow aeronautical activities on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.

“Accordingly, we expect that Santa Monica will offer new leases to all current Gunnell sub-tenants that are engaged in aeronautical businesses on appropriate terms — e.9., at fair market rents (consistent with the appraisal recently conducted by the City) and without restrictive terms on their activities (e.9., on business hours, types of operations, or irrelevant insurance mandates). Moreover, although the FAA’s grant assurances typically do not regulate non-aeronautical activities – and, indeed, aeronautical activities at airports must be prioritized — Santa Monica also is under a general obligation to ensure that SMO is self-sustaining, a goal which would not be consistent with widespread eviction of airport tenants,” he wrote.

Brown said the City’s ongoing efforts to close SMO have wasted millions of dollars. “…continuing to do so may lead to severe sanctions, such as the termination of all federal transportation grants to the City,” he said.

Nelson’s public response to the letter accused the NBAA of attempting to subvert the will of residents.

“The Chief Operating Officer for NBAA is telling our Mayor and the people of Santa Monica that if we continue our work to reclaim the land that belongs to us, they will demand that the Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) withhold funds for Santa Monica roads and public transportation!  The NBAA will urge the federal government to take away funds we use to build and repair roads and keep cars moving if we continue to reclaim local control over public property,” said Hernandez’s response. “The best way to explain my reaction to this threat is to recall my one semester of Yiddish, (yes I took Yiddish in high school) what chutzpah!”

Nelson said transportation funds are used to support 17,000,000 people that use the Big Blue Bus annually.

“Well, although bus rider surveys do not typically ask if they also commute by jet, I will take the risk, and assume that at least 99% of the people who rely on the bus don’t regularly commute by corporate jets,” he wrote. “They are hardworking people, those with disabilities, seniors, students, public transit enthusiasts, environmentalists, bicyclists, and those who may not have the means to own a car, much less a jet.”

The city is in the midst of at least three legal disputes over its ability to control, and ultimately close, the airport. Two complaints are focused on Federal Aviation Administration rules regarding the City’s ongoing obligations and the third is a lawsuit filed by the City against the FAA regarding ownership of the land.

All three cases are ongoing. Brown said Santa Monica should cease fighting operations at the airport.

“The City — like most communities across the U.S. — should recognize that its airport is a valuable asset, and on that basis act as a good steward of SMO — a policy which would benefit its residents,” he wrote.

Hernandez disagreed.

“We will continue our efforts to regain control of public land. We will not succumb to NBAA’s intimidation tactics because we know there are no monsters under the bed,” he wrote.