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Change Inevitable at Santa Monica Airport, Activists Say

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

October 3, 2013 -- After a fatal accident at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) Sunday, senior Congressman Henry Waxman has called for a federal investigation into the century-old airport's safety.

Waxman has added his voice to a growing chorus of activists who claim that the City-owned airport, surrounded on all sides by neighborhoods, poses a major safety risk and should be considered for partial closure in the near future.

While the City is legally obligated to operate the airport until 2015 as part of a 1984 settlement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the federal agency is likely not going to let the airport go without a fight.

And one tool it has in its arsenal is money to pay for improvements, including additional safety features, to the 5,000 foot runway.

Councilmember Bob Holbrook said, “If federal money goes into the airport, it automatically extends the life of the airport at least 20 years.”

That's why, he said, the City has made it a policy not to take federal money since 1994, when it took roughly $1.5 million for improvements to the runway.

“We didn't want an obligation beyond 2015,” he said.

In 1984, an agreement put an end to the City's fight with the FAA to restrict certain types of jets from using the airport due to neighbors' concerns over pollution, noise and safety.

While the FAA won the fight, and jets were allowed to continue using SMO, the settlement only obligated the City to keep about 2,000 feet of the runway operational until 2015.

“After 2015, we only have to maintain a 3,000-foot runway,” said Airport Commissioner David Goddard.

The FAA maintains that the City is obligated to keep that piece of the airport operational “in perpetuity,” though opponents argue that such an assertion is legally suspect.

While the FAA could offer to invest in new safety features, effectively obligating the City to maintain the full 5,000 feet of runway for another 20 years, Goddard thinks that isn't likely.

Santa Monica “would never take more money. It would never bow to that pressure,” he said. “It's better just to reduce the airport.”

Losing 2,000 feet of runway after 2015 would effectively limit the types of planes that could use the airport to smaller, propeller planes.

And since that type of operation isn't likely to be profitable, eventually the airport will close.

“The FAA can't compel the City to operate the airport at a loss” after the agreement is up, he said.

Still, Holbrook recalled, as mayor of Santa Monica in the late 1990s, dealing with FAA officials, which he likened to banging his head against the wall.

He added that the FAA's refusal to accept an invitation to discuss the airport's future from Waxman -- a congressman with nearly 40 years on Capitol Hill -- did not bode well for the City's future discussions with the federal agency.

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