Santa Monica Airport (File photo)

Approving a new leasing policy for the Santa Monica Airport left the council literally speechless Tuesday night.

After months waiting and an hour of community input, the City Council unanimously approved a new leasing policy for the Santa Monica Airport without a word of debate or comment at their March 22 meeting.

The unusually taciturn council accepted a new policy that uses six principles for evaluating leases, including harmony with airport neighbors, contributing to a sustainable airport fund, being in compliance with the city’s legal rights and legal obligations, opportunities for arts/education/culture, providing procedures for administration/evaluation, and environmental sensitivity.

The decision follows council’s previous decision last year to provide some 3-year leases to non-aviation tenants, but at that time the council moved aviation businesses to month-to-month leases and asked for more information regarding the master tenant/sublease contracts.

There are a total of 629 leases at the airport. About half are direct leases with the city, but 323 tenants are subleases from one of six master tenants. Leases can cover entire buildings, office space or just a “tie-down” location for a single aircraft.

Leases account for about 67 percent of total airport revenue and the proposal calls for all tenants to move to market-rate leases to help the airport become self-sustaining and erase a $13.1 million debt it owes to the city’s general fund.

The leasing policy was presented to council without the support of the Airport Commission. Commissioners deadlocked 2-2 on the proposal last week over concerns that vague wording could create more opportunities for lawsuits against the city.

Commissioner Lael R. Rubin reiterated her concerns to the council, saying the leasing policy makes no explicit acknowledgement of aviation uses at an airport and that a minor tweak to include recognition of aviation tenants as part of the mix would insulate the city from future lawsuits.

“It’s clear the City needs a policy, it’s clear that market rates should have been in place a long time ago, but this is a great opportunity to do it right,” she said.

Aviation advocates opposed the policy, saying it was discriminatory and potentially harmful to the city.

Stacy Howard spoke on behalf of the National Business Aviation Association, a national advocacy organization. She said the policy was tainted by its incorporation of misconceptions about the City’s legal obligations that could violate federal standards.

“We at NBAA encourage you, as responsible community leaders, to assure the leasing policy you may approve here tonight makes provisions for multi-year leases at reasonable terms for both aeronautical and, where appropriate, non-aeronautical airport tenants without discrimination and with rates and charges comparable to the city’s recent appraisal,” she said. “Therefore preserving precious community resources and airport business, jobs and family incomes they support.”

Residents were overwhelmingly in favor of the leasing policy. Many saw the leasing policy as a means of regulating behavior that residents deem to be dangerous or detrimental to their lives.

Robert Rigdon said a leasing policy was necessary to protect the city from ongoing and potential legal challenges over the airport. He cited the recent arguments before the Ninth District Court and ongoing hearings in Washington, D.C. as evidence the city should have a defined leasing policy.

“I think that the city really needs to take that step or you’re doing nothing and at this point, that would be disastrous because you have a bunch of former tenants sitting out there that don’t’ know what to do,” he said.

Zina Josephs spoke on behalf of the Sunset Park neighborhood association. She said the neighborhood fully supported the leasing policy as a means of reducing pollution, noise and potential traffic.

Sunset Park resident Alan Levinson said a leasing policy that can shape uses at the airport is vital to the residents, even under threats of legal action.

“We must have faith that we prevail because an undersized jet port in a residential neighborhood makes no sense and it never will,” he said.

After the meeting, Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said she trusted staff to implement the policy appropriately.

“With so many applications on the horizon, we needed a policy or it could have led to random, inconsistent decisions,” she said. “There are always concerns, but I trust Nelson [Hernandez] and Rick [Cole] to implement the policies in a consistent manner that will give due consideration to our concerns about our residents, our land uses, our revenue, and our goal of ultimately turning the airport into a park.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said the new policy doesn’t differentiate based on the type of business. He said new leases would be based on impacts to neighbors, environmental concerns and fiscal responsibility.

“The Council has unanimously adopted a policy predicated on protecting nearby residential neighborhoods from the impacts of inappropriate and potentially unsafe uses at the airport,” he said. “We are ending master leases, and allowing tenants to reapply directly and individually to the city as landlord. The real estate leasing company who will handle this for us needed clear direction from the Council on how to evaluate the applications, and we have now given that clear direction.”

Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...