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Santa Monica Airport Commissioners, Attorney Spar on Legality of Emission Regulations

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

January 6, 2015 -- Airport Commissioners voted 3-1 last month to send a proposed ordinance to the Santa Monica City Council calling for the prohibition of airplanes that they say commit too much pollution. 

The City Attorney’s Office says the municipal government does not have the authority to implement such a law.

The proposal calls for a ban, as of April 1, of all airplanes that emit at least 40 pounds of hydrocarbons per hour when idle and those that emit at least 200 pounds “in oxides of nitrogen” per hour when in “take-off mode.”

A timeline is included in the proposed ordinance that would lower the restricted amounts every six months or so until Jan. 1, 2017 when it reaches 10 pounds in idle mode and 80 pounds in take-off mode. Further reductions could take place in 2018.

Commissioner Suzanne Paulson said the proposal was based on scientific evidence of the negative health issues caused by the airplanes. She said it was not a regulation of emissions.

“It is a limitation based on proprietor's rights about who can use the airport,” Paulson said. “It is not a regulation of tailpipe or jet emissions. Maybe that’s a fine line for some people, but it seems like a very clear distinction to me.”

Commission Chair David Goddard added, “It’s important to note it’s not the City, in the eyes of the law, trying to do it. It is the proprietor attempting to do this, and the City just happens to be the proprietor in this case.”

Goddard’s opinion runs contrary to the view of the City Attorney’s Office. Deputy City Attorney Ivan Campbell told the commission that emissions rules were under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

“One of the problems you run into is any action by the City where the net result is a restriction of access of use of the airport … [saying] certain aircraft can use the facility, others can’t … [will lead to challenges],” Campbell said.

He said there was little the City could do other than asking aircraft owners to voluntarily limit emissions.

“We’re constrained in the things that we can do in that area,” he said.

Campbell was supported by Commissioner Lael Rubin, who was the lone vote against the proposal.

“Despite all the concerns from the community, with which I sympathize, I can’t in good conscience recommend something to another body for which they have no legal authority,” Rubin said.

Others were not so convinced. Leading Santa Monica Airport foe Martin Rubin (no known relation to the commissioner) said that opposition was because “[City] staff is probably trying to get out of work.”

Attorney Andy Henderson, another airport opponent who has led litigation efforts, said it was “high time for this City to get a backbone, for the City attorney specifically to do so.”

Henderson said he sent Campbell evidence of court cases that show the City had the authority to enforce the proposed ordinance. Campbell responded that none of the material he sent was specific to airports.

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