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City Hall Sues FAA Over Future of Santa Monica Airport

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

November 1, 2013 -- City Hall announced Thursday that it has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish local control over the future of Santa Monica’s controversial airport.

Santa Monica has petitioned federal courts to declared that the City has full title to the 227-acre parcel on which the airport sits and, therefore, the FAA’s claim that the City is required to operate the land as an airport for “in perpetuity” is unconstitutional.

“The bottom line is we need to be in control of the airport’s future,” Mayor Pam O’Connor told The Lookout Thursday. “We think we have a good case.”

Much of that case hinges on the fact that, in 1984 the City agreed to operate the land as an airport until at least 2015 in order to settle a dispute with the FAA over whether the City could cap airplane operations at the airport.

With the end of that agreement approaching, City Hall feels that it is in a strong position to assert its right to take control -- and possibly close -- the airport.

In preparation of the upcoming end of the 1984 agreement, the City held a three-year visioning process which officials said was the largest in the city’s history.

The decision to sue the FAA came after the Council reviewed the report last spring and directed staff to try to reach a voluntary agreement with the federal agency. ("Council Raises Landing Fees, Explores Partial Closure of Santa Monica Airport," May 2)

But the FAA has reasserted its claim that the City can’t ever close the airport because of legal obligations imbedded in property transfers that occurred just after World War Two.

"We met in Washington many times, and conveyed community concerns and proposed possibilities for changes, including operational changes, that could significantly reduce many of the Airport’s adverse impacts,” City Manager Rod Gould said in an official statement released Thursday.

“The FAA representatives were polite and respectful. But, they were simply unwilling or unable to agree to any changes that could bring significant relief to Airport neighbors,” he said.

The airport has its share of detractors, including several neighborhood groups that have sprouted up over the years to oppose to what they see as a dangerous -- and unhealthy -- use of land in their backyard.

“We are excited that the City is taking the step to confirm its rights to determine the future of the airport land, which it has owned for almost a century, during most of which time it has benefited only a few Santa Monicans,” former Lookout columnist Frank Gruber said on behalf of

As a co-founder of, Gruber and his allies have advocated for the airport’s closure and for the land to be converted into a massive park. is not alone.

Marty Rubin, founder of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP), lives in the Los Angeles neighborhood just south of the airport.

He applauded the City’s decision to sue the FAA.

“If this lawsuit will get us the results we need quickly then we applaud the City for taking this action,” he told The Lookout Thursday.

That’s a big “if,” however, since the FAA has proven a formidable opponent in the past.

Most recently, in 2008, the FAA successfully blocked City Hall’s attempt to ban jets at the airport. ("City Prepares to Respond to FAA," June, 2008)

If the City loses this lawsuit, it will be back to the drawing board, said City Manager Rod Gould.

O’Connor said that it is possible that the City could lose but that she’s confident.

“Can the federal government say ‘for all eternity’” Santa Monica has to operate that airport? she asked rhetorically. She doubted that was likely.

This time, the City might also expect to have some powerful allies in its corner for the upcoming fight.

Recently, senior Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman has added his voice to the chorus calling for the FAA to at least sit down with residents to discuss the airport’s post-2015 future. ("Congressman Wants FAA Forum on Santa Monica Airport's Future," July 18)

But the FAA has refused Waxman’s invitation.

To help shore up its case, the City will be working with the international law firm, Morrison & Foerster (MoFo), which boasts more than 1,000 attorneys, according to City Hall.

“This is the first step,” said O’Connor. “We’ll see what its outcome is.”

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