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Aviation Industry Accuses FAA of 'Trickery' in Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 17, 2017 -- A national aviation group, the Santa Monica Airport Association and others Wednesday called for an appeals court to vacate the “consent decree” reached by the City and federal government in January to close the municipal airport by the end of 2028.

In its brief to the U.S. District Court of Appeals, the National Business Aviation Association and others said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) violated laws and regulations which govern its actions and responsibilities as the ultimate overseer of the country’s airports.

"The agreement, whether reasonable or unreasonable, circumvented statutory and regulatory protections that Congress, and the FAA itself, long ago emplaced to ensure that the national interest in aviation and airports could not be disregarded in favor of a parochial agenda," the brief said.

It said the FAA disregarded a long list of requirements in signing off on the consent decree with the City Council.

Among the allegations is that the FAA failed to demonstrate the pact provided a benefit to aviation and didn’t demonstrate, as mandatory, SMO “no longer serves the purpose for which it was conveyed.”

In agreeing to the decree, the FAA also neglected its duties to follow the National Environmental Policy Act, undertake mandatory Department of Defense consultations and did not provide for required public notice and comments, the petitioners said.

In addition to the NBAA and airport association, the filing was submitted on behalf of several SMO tenants listed on the airport's website.

They are Bill’s Airport Center, which offers tiedowns, hanger space, a flight school and Pilot Outfitters; Kim Davidson Aviation, a family-run aircraft repair operation at SMO, and Redgate Partners and Wonderful Citrus, two businesses which frequently use SMO.

After decades of off and on battles with the FAA over the City’s hope to close the airport, the two entities shocked residents, the aviation industry and others when the council announced January 28 it had voted -- in a narrow vote -- for the consent decree ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

A compromise, the decree set a date of no later than December 31 of 2028 for SMO’s closure, although the council had voted a few months earlier to try to shutter the 227-acre airport in 2018 if legally possible.

The pact ended all litigation between the two parties ("Santa Monica Airport Agreement Clears Runway of Mounting Litigation Costs," January 31, 2017).

It also cleared the way for the City to dramatically reduce SMO’s sole runway to 3,500 feet -- a move meant to ward off the jet traffic neighbors said was causing pollution, excessive noise and exposing them to possible aircraft accidents.

The City is poised to start the work soon ("Santa Monica City Council Approves Contract to Shorten Municipal Airport Runway," August 10, 2017).

The aviation industry litigated to stop the decree. On May 4, the D.C. Circuit Court deferred FAA’s motion to immediately dismiss it, and referred the case to a merits panel for review ("Circuit Court Denies Injunction to Halt Implementation of Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal," May 5, 2017).

The court also denied a motion by NBAA and the others for a stay against the FAA, and an injunction against the city to put the runway shortening on hold.

Aviators have fought SMO’s neighbors for as long as they’ve tried to shut the airport, arguing it is a valuable air traffic relief valve for busy Los Angeles International Airport. The FAA was considered an ally by the SMO aviation community until the decree was announced.

The FAA oversees the nation’s airports. The City, however, owns the property. It has vowed to transform the site into a “Grand Park,” or a Westside version of New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

In its Wednesday brief, the petitioners said the “FAA is wrong on the law. FAA cannot utilize procedural trickery to evade the plain jurisdiction” afforded by federal law.

“At issue is FAA’s complete noncompliance -- its disregard of legal mandates, on a set of undisputed facts -- and its post hoc efforts to shield that noncompliance from review.

“Should FAA prevail, federal administrative agencies will be authorized to use the litigation process to enter into settlements contrary to statute and immune from public or judicial scrutiny,” the plaintiffs said. “That cannot be right; agency actions must be lawful, and must be subject to review.”


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