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FAA Would Likely Win Court Battle to Prevent Santa Monica Airport Closure, City Attorney Says

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

March 19, 2015 -- Anti-Santa Monica Airport activists say the facility, which is located on City-owned land, could at least partially close when the municipality’s 1984 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expires at the end of June. 

But City Attorney Marsha Moutrie says this view “does not withstand legal scrutiny.”

Moutrie wrote about this issue and many others involving the airport in a lengthy report to the City Council in preparation for the governing panel’s meeting on Tuesday, when it is expected to make recommendations to municipal staff on a range of airport topics.

“If the City Council were to decide to close all or part of the Airport and attempted to do so this year, after July 1, [City] staff believes that the FAA would take immediate action based on its own views of the City's obligations,” Moutrie wrote.

She added that the federal courts “would likely uphold” an administrative order from the FAA prohibiting the airport's closure.

The City will not have full control of the airport until all the legal disputes with the FAA are resolved in court, Moutrie wrote.

“That process is underway,” she wrote. “It will continue to be hard fought; and it will likely take several more years. But, resolution will eventually come.”

Moutrie further wrote, “The practical reality that the City may not now be in the position to reduce or eliminate the airport does not mean that the City is powerless to act to protect residents and the environment.”

Among the actions the City can take, Moutrie wrote, is to renegotiate leases with a large number of tenants at the airport, including the six “master lessees” that manage more than 200 subtenants.

“Several of the master (lessees) are benefiting from historic low rents, which may have been appropriate once, but are no longer; and they are charging their subtenants current market rates, which are significantly higher, thus reaping substantial profits,” Moutrie wrote.

She continued, “Staff proposes two approaches to solve this problem: terminating some subleases and taking a share of the profit on the others through the incorporation of a percentage of rent provision into the master leases.”  

But Moutrie says the City should not eliminate all subleasing.

“If subtenancies were eliminated, wholesale, the City would be managing more than 400 airport leases (not including over 200 tie-down license agreements).  Negotiating all of them would take at least a year,” she wrote.

Moutrie also wrote in the report that City resources should be used to determine if a measure should be placed on the ballot in 2016 regarding future uses of the airport property.

Two airport measures were on the ballot last November. One sponsored by aviation interests that would have severely limited the council’s ability to make any changes to the property lost by a significant margin. A rival proposal introduced by the council won by a wide margin.

The council-sponsored measure specifically stated that voter approval would not be needed to bring cultural and recreational development to the property.

Moutrie wrote, “However, it is possible that the City’s interests would be best served by allowing some other future uses at some locations on the land.”

Among those possible uses that voters might consider, Moutrie wrote, are an environmental center, restaurants and offices.

These developments "could continue to generate revenue to fund community amenities," Moutrie wrote.   

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