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Temporary Restraining Order Halts Start of Runway Reduction at Santa Monica Airport


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

October 10, 2017 -- A U.S. District Court judge on Sunday temporarily halted work originally scheduled to start Monday to shorten the Santa Monica Airport runway, saying it would “irreparably harm” the litigation trying to stop closure of the airport by the end of 2028.

The 11th-hour temporary restraining order was issued by Los Angeles District Court Judge Ronald S. W. Lew on behalf of two pilots with the Santa Monica Airport Association.

The association is among a number of aviation groups fighting a consent decree reached by the City and federal authorities in January to close SMO by December 31, 2028 and reduce the runway’s length in the meantime to reduce jet traffic ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

The City has until Friday to show why it should not be prohibited from shortening the runway; the plaintiffs have until the following Wednesday to file a reply.

Santa Monica Airport Director Stelios Makrides said in a statement Monday the City will comply with all court orders and that it had immediately filed a motion for reconsideration.

“The City believes the arguments lack merit," the statement said. "The motion remains pending.

"Due to these unforeseen circumstances, the timeline for the shortening project may be impacted.”

Work on shortening of the runway from 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet was originally scheduled to start Monday ("Santa Monica Airport Runway Project Set to Begin," September 25, 2017).

But the work had been delayed until October 18 for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit, Makrides said.

Dave Hopkins, the Santa Monica Airport Association’s vice president, said on Monday the ruling lends weight to accusations that the consent decree between the City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was an illegal “backroom deal.”

“The City tried to brush us off,” Hopkins said. “The injunction is a significant step.”

The TRO stems from a lawsuit filed in May by Kate Scott and James Babinski, who are association members ("New Lawsuit Seeks to Invalidate Santa Monica Airport Consent Decree," May 9, 2017).

The plaintiffs, who are seeking to invalidate the decree, contend the City violated the state’s open-meetings law, the California Constitution and the City Charter.

The association’s ultimate goal is to keep SMO open.

Judge Lew ruled that Scott and Babinski would “likely prevail at trial on the merits of their claim that Defendant failed to comply with the foregoing substantive law mandating a public hearing for environmental considerations arising from the terms of the Settlement Agreement.”

“These harms are irreparable because money damages are inadequate for this kind of noise and danger,” the order said. “These harms are imminent as construction, which is currently scheduled for October 9, 2017, immediately will prevent planes from utilizing the runway in its current state.”

Announced January 28 after a rare closed-door City Council session on a Saturday, the pact with the FAA is regarded as a compromise.

Under the agreement, SMO operates longer than its opponents had hoped, but the City gets a firm closure date, an end to all related litigation with the FAA and the go-ahead to shorten the runway, which is expected to reduce jet traffic by nearly 50 percent in the interim ("Santa Monica Airport Agreement Clears Runway of Mounting Litigation Costs," January 31, 2017).

The consent decree was immediately challenged by aviation groups ("Aviation Groups Challenge Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal," February 15, 2017).

The association and others are highly critical of the agreement, in part, because it no one in the wider community seemed to know it was coming.

In announcing the TRO, the Santa Monica Airport Association asked, “Why is the City afraid of public debate and comment on SMO as a key public resource?

"All the City had to do to resolve the underlying lawsuit was put it on a council agenda, have the open meeting and hearings as required, and vote again -– at which point the lawsuit would have been dismissed.

“Instead, they’ve dug in their heels, hired a pricey international law firm, removed the case to federal court, and are fighting tooth and nail. Which begs the question -- Why?"

Some anti-airport forces also are unhappy with the decree and, while far from supporting the Santa Monica Airport Association, were supportive of the litigation to side-line the decree and the court order to put the shortening work on pause.

"This court order is an opportunity for us to make things right,” said Alan Levenson, a resident of Santa Monica’s Sunset Park and a member of No Jets Santa Monica Airport.

“We need to throw the flawed and controversial consent decree in the garbage where it belongs, and get our two previous court cases back on track or seek declaratory relief based on our previous contracts,” he said.

“We must win control of our land fair and square, in public, for all to see," Levenson said.

The anti-SMO stakeholders in the fight are primarily residents in the densely populated neighborhoods surrounding the 227-acre facility. More than a century old, SMO was once a grassy informal landing strip.

Today, some homes are within 300 feet of the site and the rise of chartered jet traffic, residents say, is creating dangerous levels of pollution, noise and an increased threat from air accidents.

The aeronautics industry regards SMO as a valuable relief value for crowded Los Angeles International Airport.

Now that the council has an agreement to close the airport, it wants to use the land for a “Great Park,” or a Westside version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and New York’s Central Park.


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