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Santa Monica Council Votes for 2018 Airport Closure
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica


By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 25, 2016 -- With crucial City elections fast approaching, the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday approved the closure of the besieged City airport no later than 2018, if legally possible, and ordered a City takeover of such services as fuel and aircraft storage by December 31, or as soon as feasible.

Voting unanimously, the council also took several steps meant to address rising community anxiety about the airport, such as increased jet noise, toxic pollution and the dangers of accidents to the more than 130,000 people living within two miles of the air field. Some live only 300 feet away from the runway.

“Our Council and community in solidarity, want to close the airport that predominantly caters to the 1 percent that can afford to travel by private jet,” said Council Member Ted Winterer, who co-authored the motion with Mayor Tony Vazquez.

Winterer and Vazquez face re-election on November 8, along with incumbents Gleam Davis and Terry O’Day.

“We need to make a statement about what we see as the future of the airport,” Davis said.

After five-decades of fighting to shut down the century-old airport, some activists said Tuesday’s motion is the boldest step the City Council has taken on the issue in years.

“It feels like it’s going to happen,” said Jonathan Stein, an usually harsh critic who represents residents living near the airport in Santa Monica as well as Venice, Mar Vista and Marina del Rey in Los Angeles.

U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, whose 33rd congressional district includes Santa Monica, praised the council as well.

“I am delighted that with this resolution they have now taken the airport’s destiny into their own hands," Lieu said in a statement Wednesday. "Closing the airport is based on the City of Santa Monica’s local control and property rights.

“I whole-heartedly stand behind the residents of the City of Santa Monica and the City Council as they take significant steps to close the airport.”

But there was also a “wait and see” attitude. Some activists are still worried the council’s tough talk is just election rhetoric.

“I am glad the resolution passed, but as long as SMO neighbors continue to breath toxic jet emissions it's not possible for me to get excited,” Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP), said after the vote Tuesday evening.

A number of interim steps were also ordered by the council, mostly aimed at answering community complaints, as well as evicting two big aviation-related tenants.

The motion said the City will petition the Federal Aviation Administration -- a powerful foe -- to remove aviation from the “Western Parcel” portion the runway. Shrinking the runway by 2,000 feet (it is now 4,973 feet) would distance it from homes, officials said.

Additionally, the council told City Manager Rick Cole to create a City-run system of ancillary services to aircraft like selling fuel.

Fuel sales are now provided by Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers, both of which airport opponents want evicted, now that their leases are expired. Instead, the council’s motion allows the City to provide their services, and gives Cole until December 31 to do so, “or as soon as feasible.”

“We’re going to start right now,” said Nelson Hernandez, Cole’s senior adviser for airport affairs. “We need to create the jobs, advertise the jobs, decide what to buy or lease.”

Hernandez said the move is allowed under FAA regulations.

The Council also banned sales of unleaded aviation fuel, approved getting tougher on noise violations and ordered an investigation into whether “fractional” jet operations, in which several people and/or companies time-share jets, are really operating like scheduled airlines.

More security will be installed as well.

In the same motion, the council gave new life to a long-time dream: Transforming the airport’s entire 227 acres into the Westside’s version of the famed Golden Gate Park of San Francisco or Central Park in New York City ("Santa Monica Airport Park Expansion Hits Milestone," March 30, 2016.

“It will be ‘The Great Park,’ ” said Council Member Pam O’Connor.

Cole said creating “The Great Park” would be “the transformative event of this century for the City of Santa Monica, equal to or surpassing the pier or extending the Expo Rail line to the beach.”

Using the sprawling acreage for urban parkland has been a goal off and on since 1926, when city voters approved a bond to do so just four years after the airport’s creation.

The airport was later drafted for the war effort. Not long after the City regained control in 1948, jets began using the air field -- and rattling nerves in the rapidly growing communities surrounding it.

The city's municipal airport has been locked in battle ever since. A 1981 council vote to close the airport resulted in a pact with the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) that gave the City greater authority to curb noise, ban helicopter training and take other actions in return for operating the airport until June of 2015.

But earlier this month, the FAA upheld its own Part 16 ruling that the City must keep its airport open until 2023. The City is headed next to the federal appellate courts ("FAA Denies City Appeal in Fight to Close Santa Monica Airport," August 16, 2016).

Santa Monica is also entangled in lawsuits by leisure pilots, including Harrison Ford, and the aviation industry. They argue the airport is a vital release valve for air traffic at crowded Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

In a separate case, the 9th District Circuit Court of Appeals will decide next August whether the City is required to operate its airport into “perpetuity” by a 1948 federal Instrument of Transfer. The City rejects that argument.

The council’s vote Tuesday is meant as a signal to the court that it means business.

Tuesday’s meeting attracted 37 speakers, most of them using arguments -- pro and con -- often made in the airport fight.

Proponents of closing SMO said they could no longer take the thundering jet noise overhead.

According to the City noise violation database from May of 2013 through this April, jet operations were responsible for 92 percent of all the (95 decibel) SMO noise violations. That, officials said, is as loud as a jackhammer at 50 feet.

Meanwhile, they said, hazardous jet pollution has skyrocketed 1,500 percent since 1983.

One airport supporter was blunt in reacting.

“When did you notice you’d bought a house next to an airport?” Art Casillas asked.

Both sides let the council know their votes on November 8 would be influenced by Tuesday’s decision.

The four incumbents face six challengers. Among the better known are Oscar De La Torre, a school board member, and Armen Melkonians, the head of Residocracy, the slow-growth group behind Measure LV, also on the ballot.

Community groups upset with the council for not yet shuttering the airport also are strong backers of Measure LV, which requires voters -- not the council -- to give final approval of most new developments 32 feet in height and taller.

“I think there will be cross pollination,” Melkonians said.

Future development on the airport, if and when it closes, was on the minds of some in the audience.

Edward Story accused the entire council of being in the pocket of developers hoping to one day build at the airport.

Vazquez acknowledged he owned property in Sunset Park -- whose neighborhood group is one of the most outspoken opponents of the airport -- but City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said an exception to conflict-of-interest laws cleared him to vote.

O’Connor called talk about developing the airport land a “scare tactic.”

Officials also noted Measure LC, approved overwhelming by voters in 2014, earmarks the airport site for parkland and other community land if it becomes available. Any other type of proposed development would require a public vote.

Council Member Kevin McKeown was particularly unimpressed when told he, like his colleagues, were financially beholden to developers.

He offered to list for the audience all the developers who contribute to his campaigns. He was then silent.

“That’s all of them,” McKeown said.

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