PASADENA – However you feel about the Santa Monica Airport, buckle your seatbelt and prepare for takeoff.
One of several lawsuits in the ongoing battle over the future of the local airport moved forward Friday at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where attorneys for the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration made opening arguments before a three-judge panel in a dispute over control of the property.
The City, which is attempting to establish its right to the land, is appealing a recent U.S. District Court dismissal of its case against the FAA.
Deanne Maynard, an attorney representing the City, asserted that Santa Monica’s claim under the Quiet Title Act is valid and that the federal government does not have the authority to take over the property if the City ceases airport operations there.
“The U.S. wants to have its cake and eat it too,” said Maynard, a partner with the firm Morrison & Foerster LLP, who was previously an assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General at the Department of Justice. “The City wants the power to decide what to do, in the best interests of its citizens, with its land.”
Maynard added that the title to the property cannot revert to the federal government because the federal government never owned the land in the first place.
“You can only get back what you started with,” she said.
Arguing on behalf of the FAA, Alisa Klein said the district court was correct in its dismissal of the City’s case. She argued that there are restrictions on the City’s claim to the property and that the statute of limitations has passed. She added that the City should have known about the federal government’s interest in the land well before its 2008 assertion.
“There is a cloud on this title,” she said.
Judge Harry Pregerson pressed Klein on the applicability of the so-called reverter clause as it relates to a 1948 agreement in which the U.S. surrendered its airport land interests to the City.
“Whoever wrote it didn’t know what they were saying,” he said. “They were stupid.”
Pregerson, 92, even made an airplane-themed joke about Klein’s diminutive stature as she approached the podium to outline the FAA’s arguments.
“You’re flying low to the ground,” he said.
When asked by Judge Richard Paez about the FAA’s interests in the airport, Klein said SMO serves as a reliever airport for congestion at nearby Los Angeles International Airport.
Judge Jacqueline Nguyen asked Klein why the federal government believes it has authority over what Santa Monica does with the property if it doesn’t own the land.
“If the parties are fighting over the terms of the merits,” the judge said, “then the court needs to figure out what the merits are.”
In October 2013, the City of Santa Monica sued the FAA regarding the title to the airport property, disputing the claim that it must operate the airport in perpetuity.
In early 2014, when the FAA filed a motion to dismiss the case, the City argued against the idea that the U.S. could claim the title to the land if Santa Monica stopped operating the airport.
The FAA’s motion to dismiss was granted by the U.S. District Court’s Central District of California, which concluded that “the City knew, or should have known, that the United States claimed an interest in the Airport Property as early as 1948.”
The City appealed the ruling in October 2014, saying that its claim under the Quiet Title Act remained justified. The FAA contended that the statute of limitations had passed.
The 1984 settlement agreement between Santa Monica and the U.S. expired July 1.
An appeals court hearing was announced in late December, a month after the City hired Nelson Hernandez as an airport affairs advisor to City Manager Rick Cole.
“The future of Santa Monica Airport is at critical juncture and securing local control is one of the City’s top priorities,” Cole has said.