The week after City Hall declared its intent to close the Santa Monica Airport, legal maneuvering, community debate and overt threats continue to cloud the future of the site.
Council unanimously passed a resolution on Aug. 23 calling for the closure of the airport in 2018, directing staff to begin planning for a park on the site and authorizing a city takeover of private airport services. In the following days, City Hall has filed an appeal with the FAA over authority to close the airport and the FAA has sent a letter to the city warning of legal action if airport operations are restricted.
Within in a week of the council decision to set a closure timeline, Kevin C. Willis, Director of Airport Compliance and Management Analysis for the FAA wrote a letter to the city expressing concern about the City Council’s recent resolution to close the airport in 2018, the city’s leasing policy that separates aviation and non-aviation uses, a City plan to take over aviation services and an intent to eliminate leaded fuel.
He cited the grant assurances as evidence the city must comply with FAA standards.
“Under the grant assurances, the City must make the airport available as an airport for public use on fair and reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination,” he said.
His letter states similar requirements are included in the documents that transferred the airport land to the City.
Both the grants and instrument of transfer are now subject to federal court cases disputing their authority.
Willis said pending the outcome of the court cases, airport operations must be maintained.
“We are, of course, aware that the City has the right to appeal the Final Agency Decision in federal appellate court. It is our position that pending judicial review, the City is required to continue to operate the airport for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination.”
The letter threatens additional legal action.
“We understand that the City Council has firm views regarding its rights in this matter. However, we strongly urge the City Council to abide by its federal grant assurance obligations and to forbear from taking actions in furtherance of its announced intent to close SMO pending further rulings by the federal courts,” he said. “The FAA is prepared to pursue all legal remedies at its disposal if the City Council takes concrete actions to restrict leases or operations without complying with the applicable federal law or otherwise seeks to undermine the Final Agency Decision dated August 15, 2016.”
The letter requests City Hall submit its plans for airport service takeover to the FAA and in addition, it requests the city submit its leasing policy for review.
Mayor Tony Vazquez said the city was not surprised with the FAA’s response.
“The FAA has consistently maintained their support for aviation interests despite their mandate to also protect public health and safety,” he said. “We will respond respectfully but vigorously to defend our rights to local control of land owned by the citizens of Santa Monica since 1926.”
The City is involved in several legal fights over SMO. The most recent is a so called Part 16 hearing filed by airport supporters that argues Santa Monica is required to operate the airport until at least 2023.
City officials have claimed they have the authority to close the airport since 2014 but the FAA ruled otherwise.
According to the FAA, Santa Monica received a $1,604,700 grant for planning, airport development or noise program implementation in 1994. Projects funded by the grant were completed in 1996. However, the city applied for, and received, an additional $240,600 in 2003.
The FAA has said accepting the additional grant money bound the city to FAA rules that stipulate projects built with the money must operate for at least 20 years.
Both sides agree a blast wall paid for by the grant money went into service in 2002 but the city’s argument was that accepting the additional money did not restart the 20-year clock first started in 1994.
The FAA issued its first decision on the case in December of 2015. At that time, the Director’s Determination said City Hall is required to operate the airport until at least 2023 due to the acceptance qualifications attached to federal grants. The City appealed that decision and reiterated its assertion that the grant assurances expired in 2014.
The City’s first appeal went back to the FAA, and the Associate Administrator upheld the original 2023 date in a decision issued earlier this month.
“Based on this reexamination, the FAA concludes that the Director’s Determination is supported by a preponderance of reliable, probative and substantial evidence and is consistent with applicable law, precedent and FAA policy,” said the ruling. “The Associate Administrator finds that the City’s Appeal does not contain persuasive arguments sufficient to reverse any portion of the Director’s Determination.”
The original complaint was filed by a group of aviation proponents that includes SMO tenants, individual pilots and national organizations. The group includes the National Business Aviation Association, Krueger Aviation, Harrison Ford, Justice Aviation, Kim Davidson Aviation, Aero Film, Youri Bujko, James Ross, Wonderful Citrus LLC., and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
City Hall has filed a new appeal with the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals regarding the recent FAA Part 16 Grant Assurances Determination and the case joins an already pending lawsuit in the federal system over the City’s authority to ever close the facility, regardless of the grant timelines.
BY MATTHEW HALL
Daily Press Editor