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City of Santa Monica and Aviators Back Before FAA in Fight for Control of City Airport

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

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 3, 2016 -- The City of Santa Monica and opponents from the aviation industry are back before the Federal Aviation Administration in the long fight for control of the City airport and plans to one day close it.

City officials have filed an appeal of a Dec. 4 ruling by the FAA that determined the City of Santa Monica must continue operating the historic Santa Monica Airport as a location for aviation at least through 2023, according to Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown.

The FAA ruling rejected the City’s argument that its operating agreement with the FAA should have already expired. In its brief filed Monday, the City Attorney’s Office says the time for the federal government to relinquish the control of the airport is long over, the Aviation National News said.

“In 1941, the city leased the airport to the United States to aid in the war effort. Together with the city, the federal government expanded and reconfigured the airport,” the appeal said, according to publication. “In 1948, with the war over, the federal government officially surrendered its leasehold interest to the city.

“The city has continued to operate the airport since that date. It has, however, been unable to do so without serious adverse consequences for residents of the densely populated surrounding neighborhood, who are subject to the airport’s noise, pollution and safety hazards,” it said. “The city has undertaken a number of efforts to alleviate these effects, including imposing noise limits, curfews and banning certain types of aircraft.”

City opponents from the aviation industry, meanwhile, have already filed their reply. The National Business Aviation Association, one of several aviators in the fight, contends City officials have “essentially professed ignorance” of the agreement that they say extended operation of the airport until 2023 when the City accepted federal funds for airport improvements in 2003.

The City has asserted that the FAA’s reasoning was incorrect when it acted against the City in December, said NBAA Chief Operating Officer Steve Brown. But the City is wrong, he said.

“That first position is irrelevant to the argument at hand, and we fully support the FAA’s position that the 2003 decision was a new contract that restarted the clock on the city’s commitments,” Brown said.

“At its core, the City’s appeal asserts that Santa Monica, uniquely, should not be subject to the obligations that apply to every airport that accepts federal Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) grants and that the City’s professed ignorance of what it was agreeing to when it accepted additional federal funds in 2003 should further excuse it from those obligations,” the brief from opponents said.

“As the FAA is aware, the City has for decades been seeking, unsuccessfully, to find a means by which to impose restrictions on operations at Santa Monica Municipal Airport (“SMO” or “Airport”), or to close the Airport altogether.”

Brown said NBAA and the others aircraft owners, including actor/pilot Harrison Ford, who filed the brief with the FAA last week are seeking to keep the airport open for aviation.“Our goal has always been to ensure that the Santa Monica Airport continues operating and that the City honors its commitments,” he said.

A FAA decision on the appeal could take from two to six months, he said.

This latest round of appeals is part of a decades-old fight by Santa Monica officials to close the 227-acre airport, which is almost a century old. About 270 aircraft are based at the airport, with about 95,100 landings and take-offs annually.

Neighbors contend it is dangerously close to residences and is loud and a source of pollution. The aviation community regards it as an important component for air traffic in the Los Angeles region.

At the heart of this particular battle is the City’s original deal with the federal government -- made during World War II – returning control of the airport land to Santa Monica in June 2014. The FAA’s December ruling found that the City became obligated to continue operating the facility as an airport until August 27, 2023, when it accepted federal funds to maintain the airport in 2003.

The appeal focuses on four issues, including whether the city agreed to extend the expiration date of its obligations toward the airport when it accepted an increase in federal funds in 2004 for a 1994 grant agreement and whether the FAA’s Part 16 ruling it outside its jurisdiction.

Both sides in the ongoing dispute expressed determination, although they seemed to also agree a long battle is ahead. The NBAA’s Brown said the City has the right to exercise its right to due process, and McKeown reiterated that he is “more patiently determined than hopefully optimistic.”

“We still have to go through more
iterations of internal FAA administrative review before we get to a court,” he said, “
where I believe Santa Monica’s right to control land we own will be

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