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FAA Denies City Appeal in Fight to Close Santa Monica Airport
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Roque & Mark Real Estate
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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 16, 2016 -- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Monday denied a City appeal of the agency's administrative ruling that ordered Santa Monica Airport to remain open until 2023.

City leaders were far from shocked, and prepared for the next battle: Filing another appeal, this time outside the FAA to a federal appellate court.

“The FAA has once again acted in their favor, as judge and jury in matters involving the future of Santa Monica’s land,” said Mayor Tony Vazquez. “We did not expect the FAA to rule against itself.

"We will act swiftly to appeal this decision to a federal appellate court where an impartial panel of judges will consider all of the facts and our legal claims will finally be given fair consideration.”

Eduardo Angeles, the FAA’s associate airports administrator, upheld the agency’s Part 16 ruling, issued December 4, which found the City wrongly contended its obligation to keep the airport operating expired in 2014 ("FAA Rules Santa Monica Airport Must Stay Open," December 7, 2016).

The City failed to offer “persuasive arguments sufficient” to make its case for an appeal, Angeles said in upholding the FAA decision.

However, denial of the City’s appeal comes at a politically sensitive time.

On August 23, the City Council is likely to set a closure date of June 30, 2018 or as soon as “legally possible” for the airport, and ardent supporters are planning to urge the council to apply even more pressure to force out aviation tenants.

Although the council’s tough-talk is politically motivated to some degree -– Vazquez and incumbents Ted Winterer, Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day are running for re-election in a crowded field on November 8 –- the airport closure date might also help the City’s veracity in court, members say.

City leaders have been trying to shut the century-old airport for years, primarily in response to ongoing complaints from residential neighbors about noise, air pollution, possibly contaminated soil and other hazards from living so close. The closest live just 300 feet from the runway.

The aviation industry, including famous leisure pilots like Harrison Ford, is pushing back aggressively, arguing SMO is a vital resource for Southern California’s crowded skies and a relief valve for congested Los Angeles International Airport.

But the FAA, which oversees the nation’s airports, has shown little evidence of support for SMO’s closure.

At the heart of the current issue is a 1994 legal arrangement in which the City agreed to federal funding to operate the airport for 20 more years. The City received more federal funding in 2003, a move opponents to closing SMO argue re-started the countdown to the initial 20-year pact.

The FAA subsequently ruled that the 2003 modification extended the City’s obligation to keep SMO operating until 2023.

The City’s appeal raised several issues, including that the FAA’s decision was outside its jurisdiction and that it had failed to specify the language showing the City had violated its original grant assurance.

“Are we surprised by his determination? Of course not, we would have been surprised by any other conclusion,” said Nelson Hernandez, the senior adviser on airport issues for City Manager Rick Cole.

“Despite the roar of corporate jets and toxic lead fumes coming from the tail pipes of the propeller planes, we did not expect a fair hearing from FAA.”

Council Member Kevin McKeown agreed.

“The FAA has now played out their self-serving charade for as long as the law allows, and finally Santa Monica will argue for control of our own land before a far more impartial court,” he said.

Santa Monica leased its airport to the United States in 1941 as part of the war effort. The federal government gave up its leasehold to the city in 1948.

In its appeal, the City said it is unable to continue operations without “serious adverse consequences” to the densely populated communities that surround the 227-acre airport –- one of the nation’s oldest.

The City is already in court over issues related to its struggle to close the airport.

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