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City Tackles Airport Property Development in Proposed Measure

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

July 7, 2014 -- Development on the 277-acre Santa Monica Airport property would be prohibited until the City Council approves a Specific Plan for the area crafted “through an inclusive public process,” if voters approve a City Charter amendment proposed by the municipal legal team.

The amendment is expected to go before voters via a ballot measure in November. It would compete with a measure backed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) that says nearly all changes to the airport, including closure, can only be made with voter approval.

Addressing development in the City’s proposal is important because the people behind the AOPA measure say they are preventing Santa Monica officials from “over-development” on the property. Opponents of the AOPA measure have challenged the sincerity of their campaign, and say aviation interests’ real goal is to keep the status quo at Santa Monica Airport.

The council will consider the language of the amendment at its meeting on Tuesday. It is expected to finalize the ballot measure language July 22.

The amendment also gives the council authority to close all or part of the airport without voter approval as well as to regulate the property’s use and handle leases. A previous proposal from City staff called for closure requiring voter approval in an effort to keep its measure similar to the AOPA one.

When Santa Monica Airport, which sits on property owned by the City, can close is a matter of dispute. City officials and many activists say it can take place next summer. Others say it cannot happen until much later, if it can happen at all.

A complaint was filed with the Federal Aviation Administration last week saying 2023 is the earliest the facility could close. ("Santa Monica Airport Proponents Gain Star Power in Complaint," July 4, 2014)

Most people believe closure is an issue that will be settled in a courtroom, something that even City Attorney Marsha Moutrie acknowledges in her staff report to the City Council for the amendment.

The amendment also gives the council the authority to approve specific types of development on the property after a possible closure of the airport, but before a Specific Plan is finalized. Included are “parks, public open spaces and public recreational facilities … maintenance and replacement to their present size of existing permanent structures ... and the continuation of existing cultural, arts and education uses."

City staff has proposed an alternative amendment that includes the same language as the original one along with a feature allowing residents to vote on “a conceptual framework to guide formulation of the Specific Plan.” But City Attorney Marsha Moutrie does not recommend voter approval be required for the implementation of the Specific Plan.

“The planning process necessarily involves a thorough and painstaking identification, elucidation and balancing of competing concerns,” she wrote in the staff report. “Once such a balance is finally struck, a simple yes or no vote on the entire plan does not afford guidance as to revisions. To the contrary, a no vote might require starting the entire process over, from its very beginning.”

Moutrie also opposes voters determining what could be built on the property, including specifications on heights, sizes, zoning density and other features. She wrote this would require environmental review and “would deprive the community of the planning process and eliminate flexibility.”

The amendment says that if voters approve the City and AOPA measures in November, only the City one would go into effect if it receives the most votes.

Supporters of the AOPA measure issued a press release last week saying the City’s proposal was an attempt to bring significant development to the property. This is in line with the campaign strategy of saying their proposal is an anti-development measure.

Opponents of the AOPA measure have called this a strange, if not misleading, tactic since the actual language of the proposal does not address development.

“The special interests who profit from squatting on land owned by Santa Monicans clearly hope voters won’t notice that the only place ‘development’ is addressed in their efforts is in the deliberately deceptive name of their committee,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown wrote last week in an email to The Lookout.

The name of the committee behind the AOPA measure is Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions.

County officials are reviewing the AOPA measure to determine if enough signatures were collected by registered Santa Monica voters to qualify the item for the ballot. They have until July 23 to finalize the review.

If the County has not made a determination by July 22, when the City Council is supposed to vote on the language for its measure, council members might hold off on their decision for a day as recommended by City staff. This is because a City measure would not be needed if there were no AOPA proposal going on the ballot.

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