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Santa Monica Keeps Options Open in Lawsuit against the FAA

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By Jason Islas
Lookout reporter

April 10, 2014 -- City Hall may appeal a decision by a federal judge in February to throw out a lawsuit that officials had hoped would settle a long-standing feud with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the future of the City-owned Santa Monica Airport.

Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie announced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the City had filed a notice of appeal in response to Judge John F. Walter’s decision to toss the lawsuit, which would have laid the groundwork for the City to begin closing the century-old airfield as early as 2015.

Filing the notice of appeal, however, does not necessarily mean the City will go through the whole process, but was more about keeping Santa Monica’s options open, according to officials.

“The filing of a notice starts the appeal process,” Moutrie told the Lookout in an email Tuesday. “And, if a notice of appeal is not timely filed, the right to appeal would be lost.”

After Walter’s February ruling, the City had 60 days to appeal the decision.

“An appeal can be abandoned after filing if the appellant decides not to pursue the appeal,” Moutrie said, speaking about the appeal process in general.

“Generally speaking, filing a notice of appeal preserves the right to pursue and appeal but does not require doing so,” she said.

The lawsuit that the City filed in November was the latest volley in Santa Monica’s ongoing war with the FAA over the future of the airport, which sits on 227 acres of City-owned land.

In the suit, the City claimed its 1984 settlement agreement with the FAA expires on July 1, 2015, the City no longer has to operate its land as an airport.

The FAA argued, however, that due to legal obligations embedded in the transfer documents signed when the federal government returned operations of the airport to Santa Monica after World War Two, the City must operate the land as an airport “in perpetuity.”

While the judge did not uphold the FAA’s claim, he ruled that the City had waited too long to challenge the federal government’s claim in the property.

Still, the City Council voted unanimously in March to move forward with plans to roll back fuel sales and close part of the 5,000-foot runway in 2015. (“City Council Moves Ahead with Plans to Close Santa Monica Airport,” March 27, 2014)

The vote prompted advocates of the airport -- including the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association -- to launch a ballot initiative effort that, if it qualifies for the ballot and is approved by voters, would alter the City’s charter to prevent any major changes to the airport without a popular vote. (“Ballot Initiative to Preserve Santa Monica Airport Moves Forward,” April 8, 2014)

Moutrie’s announcement Tuesday was celebrated by local anti-airport activists.

“This is a property that the residents bought in 1926 with their own money that today is worth upwards of $2 billion,” said former Santa Monica Mayor Mike Feinstein.

“To not keep all legal options open for us to regain our control over the land would be pennywise and pound foolish and therefore I support these efforts on behalf of our community 100 percent,” said Feinstein, who is part of a group advocating for the airport’s conversion into a park.

Still, it’s unclear if the appeal will go forward.

“Filing the notice is a very simple process, which merely requires filing a two-page ‘form’ with the court,” Moutrie said. “The major work on any appeal is writing the briefs, which comes later.”

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