A U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit from a local pilot and pilot-in-training challenging a settlement agreement between the city and the FAA to shorten the runway at Santa Monica Airport and obtain control of the land in 2029.

Kate Scott and James Babinski alleged city leaders violated the Brown Act because there was no public hearing on the decree.  However, the judge found the City Council and Interim City Attorney Joseph Lawrence followed state law when they publicly posted the discussion would be taking place in closed session at a special meeting early this year.

“The City did in fact hold a public hearing on the subject of the runway shortening on January 28, 2017 prior to going into a closed session; the City also held multiple other public hearings on this matter,” Judge Philip Gutierrez said in the ruling.  The City Council then publicly debated the merits of the decree before approving the deal in a 4-3 vote at the sparsely attended Saturday session.

The Brown Act allows elected leaders to discuss legal matters in closed session.

“This ruling reaffirms the validity of the historic agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the FAA, entered as a Consent Decree by the U.S. District Court,” Mayor Ted Winterer said in a statement. “Reducing flights by large jets will improve the lives our residents and neighbors living adjacent to SMO. This is another victory for Santa Monica.”

The news of the legal victory was marked by silence at the airport, where the runway has been closed since Dec. 13 while construction crews repaint the runway to 3,500 feet.  The runway is scheduled to reopen by the end of the year but will no longer be long enough for certain large jets.

“A reduction in jet aircraft operations will minimize overall air pollution and noise exposure for the neighborhoods surrounding the airport,” said airport advisor Suja Lowenthal.  “This construction project also provides more adequate safety areas at the ends of the runway.”

Even with one lawsuit dismissed, the legal fight over the fate of the airport will continue.  The National Business Aviation Administration is challenging the settlement agreement in the U.S. Court of Appeals.  The NBAA maintains the shortening of the runway will have a major negative impact on nearby residents, business, general aviation and the flying public.

“Should NBAA prevail in court, the city of Santa Monica is gambling with more than $3 million of airport funds for this potentially temporary runway shortening, which mostly involves changes in runway markings and lighting, taxiway configuration and relocation of navaids,” said Alex Gertsen, the NBAA’s director of airport infrastructure.

A recent report found the runway shortening will effectively shut down business charter jet operations at SMO, but most corporate and private jets will still be able to take off and land. Owners of large jets were asked to remove their aircraft from SMO before construction began to shorten the take off area to ensure their safe departure.

The City Council has passed a resolution to close the airport to aviation once the city gains control of the land Dec. 31, 2028.  In the meantime, the settlement agreement also allows the city to pursue its municipal takeover of airport services and allows for SMO to develop a pilot program for the sale of unleaded fuel.


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press